Watford 0 Stoke City 0: Watford draw no comfort from wasted opportunity

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The Independent Football

Take away Rob Styles' presence and this game bore no resemblance to the Premier League status it may acquire later this year. And his performance was not without its critics either.

Styles erred with, by the consensus of both camps, two big decisions as Watford and Stoke City served up a goalless mess for the second time this season.

As befitting a flawed division, neither could seize upon the great opportunity the referee handed them, Stoke's response to having a man advantage for 70-plus minutes remaining so feeble that Ricardo Fuller's tame 25-yard shot was the nearest they managed to an on-target attempt.

Tony Pulis's contention that the dismissal of John Eustace had sent his naturally rugged players tip-toeing into challenges appeared no more convincing than his citing of travel weariness in mitigation for a nothing performance. He might have had a point after Tuesday's win at Norwich had Watford not visited Bristol the same night.

Stoke's players sympathised with Eustace, a team-mate until January, after he caught Richard Cresswell with a late, high challenge. "I don't need to say anything about the decision because people can judge for themselves on TV," Eustace said. "Cressy was up and running shortly afterwards and the ref has seen something that wasn't there."

There's nothing like a sending-off to galvanise a crowd; Adrian Boothroyd was so stirred by it all that he seized a microphone at full-time, praised the 'fantastic' Watford fans.

While Stoke's chance was frittered away across most of the afternoon, Watford's was blown in just an instant, Carlo Nash saving Darius Henderson's penalty – his second miss in a week – after Andy Griffin had been harshly penalised for handling.

That one had the look of an 'evening up' decision from Mr Styles and left Stoke's skipper complaining: "I asked him if it was for deliberate handball and he said 'No, it just hit your hand' There's a little bit of mayhem in the world of football."

Watford had most of the play and all the openings but continue to assault the senses with their style, their 10-game unbeaten run now showing six successive draws. Stoke are top once more but their only other satisfaction was their resolute defending.

It was a game for Pulists rather than purists. The Premier League does not hold its breath.

Watford (4-4-2): Lee; Demerit, Bromby, Shittu, Sadler; Smith, Eustace, O'Toole, McAnuff; Henderson, John (Williamson, HT). Substitutes not used: Poom (gk), Stewart, Kabba, Ellington.

Stoke City (3-4-3): Nash; Riggott, Cort (Gallagher, HT), Shawcross; Griffin, Whelan, Delap, Dickinson (Pugh, 53); Bothroyd (Diao, 59), Fuller, Cresswell. Substitutes not used: Simonsen (gk), Parkin.

Bookings: Watford Henderson, McAnuff. Stoke Fuller, Whelan, Shawcross, Gallagher.

Sending-off: Watford Eustace.

Referee: R Styles (Hampshire).

Man of the match: Griffin.

Attendance: 18,338.