27th May, 2013
While the focus is firmly on Wembley for the eagerly anticipated Champions League final between Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund, forty eight hours later another crucial final- and one which is more important to English football and the Premier League- takes place at the same venue. Crystal Palace and Watford go head to head in the nPower Championship playoff final to determine which side joins Cardiff City and Hull in the English Premier League next year. In what is undoubtedly been the most lucrative game in world football, promotion to the Premier League is worth more than ever before. With the new TV deal kicking in from the 2013-14 season, this game is billed to be worth ₤120 million. Last season’s final between WestHam and Blackpool was valued at ₤90 million. Suffice to say, there’s never been a better time to earn promotion to the Premier League.
The road to the final
Following Watford’s progress in the playoffs has been a thrilling and an entertaining experience for all the neutrals and a tale of hope, despair and unadulterated emotional roller coaster for their fans. On the final day of the season, they were at home to mid-table Leeds United and were expected to win. In second place were Hull City, a point ahead and at home to champions Cardiff. Hull’s recent slide in form had given hope for the Hornets. Prior to the last day, Hull had failed to score in 4 games and had dragged themselves into a race for 2nd place with Watford. But in what was a bad omen of things to come, goal keeper Manuel Almunia (ex-Arsenal) pulled a muscle in the warmup and was replaced by second choice Jonathon Bond. As fate would have it Bond got injured in a collision with his own defender and was replaced by 19-year old academy product Bonham.
Having gone a goal down, Watford pulled things back on the stroke of half time through Almen Abidi. With Hull coming back from a goal down at home to take a 2-1 lead, even a win for Watford would not have seen them usurp the former into the 2nd spot. Adding to the drama was the fact that the Watford game was delayed by a good 20 minutes due to the collision between Bond and his own team mate. Watford suffered another blow as midfielder Ikechi Anya was sent off for a second yellow card. In the meantime Hull looked all set to seal their promotion to the Premier League as they held on to a 2-1 lead and looked to have the game wrapped up by winning a penalty in the 90th minute. Nick Proschwitz missed the penalty and at the other end Nicky Manynard scored a stoppage time penalty to leave Hull City’s fate out of their own hands.
A Watford win would see them through to second place and relegate Hull to the playoff spots. But despite being egged on by the home crowd- who were aware of Hull’s draw against Cardiff- Leeds delivered the sucker punch as they took advantage of the home side’s attacking intent and their own numerical advantage with Ross Mccormack scoring a 90th minute winner. The loss meant that Watford had to play 6th placed Leicester City- who themselves secured the playoff spot with an 88th minute winner at Nottingham Forest pushing the home side out of the playoff spots.
The first leg of the semifinal was a disappointing one for the Hornets as they lost 1-0 at the King Power Stadium. Leicester were the better side over the course of the 90 minutes as they attacked with pace and power. Their dominance finally resulted in a goal as David Nugent headed in a Anthony Knockaert freekick. Knockaert, the young Frenchman on the radar of top clubs like Arsenal, put in a man-of-the-match performance.
The second leg at Vickreage Road proved to be one of the most dramatic games this season. In the 15th minute, Matej Vydra put Watford 1-0 up thus making it 1-1 on aggregate. Having started brightly, Leicester were not taking things lying down and after a succession of corners came to nothing, the Foxes restored parity and went ahead on aggregate with Nugent heading in a Knockaert corner. It was advantage Leicester as they scored a crucial away goal. There were no more goals in the first half and Watford’s pressure paid off when Vydra scored his second after a one-two with Trevor Deeney to give Watford a 2-1 lead. With Leicester set to go through on away goals, Watford laid seige to the visitors penalty area. But Leicester held firm.
As the clock ticked down, in the 94th minute Leicester were awarded a dubious penalty after Casetti was adjudged to have fouled Knockaert in the penalty box. What followed was extraordinary. Knockaert powerful penalty was saved by Almunia who then got up quickly and saved the rebound. The ex-Arsenal keeper produced two stops of extraordinary athleticism. The Watford defence cleared the ball to their right and in the blink of an eye the ball was in Leicester’s penalty box with Jonathon Hogg’s knockdown enabling Troy Deeney to apply the finish and send his side to the playoffs. The scenes that ensued at Vickreage Road were full of frezny and emotion.
Palace’s route to the final was less dramatic though it was not uneventful. After winning the final game of the season- two late goals securing a 3-2 win- Palace finished 5th in the table with 72 points. It was a disappointing end to the season as they were top of the table in November under Dougie Freedman. Freedman was sacked and replaced by Ian Holloway from Blackpool. Though the good run of form continued under him initially, inconsistency dogged them post Christmas and they slowly dropped out of contention for automatic promotion. Before the final day win against Peterborough they were without a win for 9 games including a 3-0 defeat to arch rivals Brighton & Hove Albion and an embarrassing 4-0 defeat at home to Birmingham City.
In the playoffs they were up against their arch rivals Brighton&Hove Albion who finished above them in 4th place. After a dull 0-0 draw at home, the two sides remained deadlocked at the end of the 1st half of the second leg. But Manchester United’s January signing Wifred Zaha scored two goals in the second half to earn a spot in the playoff final at Wembley at the expense of their bitter rivals. The victory was all the more sweeter as they won on enemy turf and later it was revealed that prior to the game, “excrement” had been put in Crystal Palace’s dressing room, in what was described as an “unsavoury incident.”
Clash of the Managers : Zola vs Holloway
Both managers emphasize on playing a passing game and prefer players of technical quality. Zola’s Watford are one of the few teams in England who are comfortable with playing a back three and the Italian has adopted a 3-5-2 very successfully. Holloway, on the other hand, prefers a more basic 4-5-1 with Championship’s top scorer Glen Murray leading the line. Watford and Palace are the two top scorers in the division with 85 and 75 goals respectively and with defense not being at the forefront of the thoughts of both managers, an entertaining game can be expected.
There’s a bit of a history between Holloway and Watford which adds a bit of needle to the clash. Holloway had earlier criticised Watford’s large scale use of overseas loan players, which, according to him, gave them an unfair advantage. Watford are owned by the Pozzo family who also own Udinese F.C of the Serie A and Granada C.F of the La Liga. Watford have 11 international players on loan from both these clubs and after a 2-2 draw between the two sides in February, a game in which Watford had 7 of these 11 players in the match day squad. Since overseas loan signings are considered as transfers, the Football League rule restricting the number of loan players to 5 in the match day squad did not apply.
Holloway rued this fact by telling BBC Sport, “They’ve got some world-class players that they’ve borrowed from almost one club. It seems pretty ludicrous to me” . These comments, inevitably, did not go down well with the Watford fans. In fact, these on loan signings have played a crucial role in Watford’s success this season.
Starting Lineups and Team News
Watford (3-5-2): Alumina; Cassetti, Ekstrand, Doyley; Chaloboah, Battochio, Briggs, Anya, Abidi; Vydra, Deeney
Crystal Palace(4-5-1): Speroni; Moxey, Delaney, Gabidon, Ward; Dikgacoi, Jedinak, Williams, Garavan, Zaha, Wilbraham
While Watford have all players fit for this clash, Crystal Palace will miss the services of Championship’s top scorer Glen Murray who hasn’t recovered from the injury he picked up in the semifinal first leg against Brighton. Aaron Wilibraham will lead the line though he has a grand total of 1 this season and that too against Preston in the League Cup.
Players to watch out for
Matej Vydra (Watford): Having scored the first two goals in the win against Leicester and notched up 22 goals in the season, the Czech Republican, on loan from Udinese, would like to end his loan spell by guiding Watford to the playoffs and probably play in the Premier League next season.
Wilfred Zaha(Crystal Palace): The on-loan Manchester United winger would love to sign off with another virtuoso performance after his brace guided Palace to the finals. While his performances have been a bit up and down since his move to Manchester United was announced, he would surely be itching to put up a good performance at the grandest stage of them all, the Wembley.
Watford 2-1 Crystal Palace
- This is Ian Holloway’s third playoff final in 5 years. Having guided Blackpool to the Premier League with a 3-2 win against Cardiff in 2009, he lost with Blackpool against West Ham United in last year’s final.
- This is Watford’s first appearance at the new Wembley.
Gianfranco Zola: “If they don’t enjoy it they are crazy. We’ve been working all year to get to this situation and I don’t want too much pressure to distract them from the atmosphere. Whatever happens it will be a great day and to be there will be a pleasure, not a stress“
Zola tries to play down the pressure of the occasion ahead of the big match.
Ian Holloway: “We have got a chance of everybody’s dream. It is a different planet and off the chart. If it is achieved then it might mean a new ground, which is the vision of the owners.”
Holloway in no mood to downplay the occasion and what promotion means to the club.
Watford 2-1 Crystal Palace
Written by Chaitanya