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    Championship Play-Off Final Preview: Crystal Palace vs Watford

    Benjamin Watts
    (GettyImages -ImagebankIL)

    On Monday 27th May, both Crystal Palace and Watford will step out onto the hallowed turf at Wembley Stadium aiming to win one of the most coveted prizes in world football; a place in the Premier League worth £120 million.


    Watford earned their place in the final thanks to a dramatic 97th minute winner from Troy Deeney, as they defeated Leicester City 3-1 at Vicarage Road (3-2 on aggregate). Meanwhile Palace defeated arch-rivals Brighton and Hove Albion 2-0 at the Amex Stadium after two goals from wing-wizard Wilfried Zaha.


    Form: Both sides will go into the game believing they have what it takes to win the match.


    Watford: The Hornets narrowly missed out on automatic promotion following a 2-1 loss to Leeds United on the last day of the season, which saw Hull pip them to second place by two points. They also came out on top in the two league matches against the Eagles, winning 3-2 on the opening day of the season at Selhurst Park, before a 2-2 stalemate in the return fixture. Gianfranco Zola’s men will be looking to make amends for their failure to achieve automatic promotion by gaining victory at Wembley.


    Last five games: WLLWW


    Crystal Palace: After a promising start to the season under manager Dougie Freedman, in which Crystal Palace briefly reached the summit of the Championship table having gone fourteen matches without losing, under new boss Ian Holloway, Palace’s performances have been somewhat unpredictable. Yet, despite a less than convincing run of results (nine games without a win), Crystal Palace turned their fortunes around towards the end of the season and come into the final full of confidence, off the back of an eight-match unbeaten run.


    Last five games: WDWDD


    History:


    Both clubs have had remarkable success over the years in gaining promotion to the Premier League via the playoffs. Watford have a 100% record from their two previous second tier play off finals: they defeated Bolton Wanderers 2-0 in 1999 at the old Wembley Stadium, and saw off Leeds United 3-0 at the Millennium Stadium, Cardiff, back in 2006. Palace have won a play-off final on three separate occasions, (in 1989, 1997 and 2004), whilst boss Ian Holloway won the final with his former club Blackpool in 2010 against Cardiff, but lost in the 2012 final to West Ham.


    Key Players:


    Watford: The Hornets will certainly be hoping that their Championship player of the year, Matej Vydra, will add to his tally of 22 league goals this season. The on-loan Czech-centre forward’s performances this term has led to reported interest from a number of Premier League clubs, including Tottenham, Fulham and Aston Villa. His strike partner Troy Deeney is also a big goal threat, having bagged 20 league goals himself, including that crucial winner against Leicester. The Vydra-Deeney strike partnership has everything: pace, power, aerial ability and most of all composure in front of goal. The pair are sure to trouble the Eagles back-line on Monday.


    Elsewhere, on-loan midfielder Nathaniel Chalobah (Chelsea) won the Championship young player of the month award for April and has impressed many with his performances this season, subsequently earning himself a call-up to the England U21 squad. Almen Abdi is another on-loan midfielder (Udinese) who has impressed for the Hornets this term, with the Swiss international contributing 12 goals and 8 assists. At the back, Watford will be looking to duo Manuel Almunia and Lloyd Doyley to provide vital experience and leadership. Former Arsenal goalkeeper Almunia is no stranger to a Wembley final, whilst Doyley has spent his entire career at Vicarage Road, making 407 appearances for the club.


    Crystal Palace: Manchester United-bound Wilfried Zaha will play his last ever game for the Eagles at Wembley and will be hoping to finish his spell in South London on a high. Zaha has terrorised defences all season with his terrifying trickery and wing-play, contributing 8 goals and 9 assists, and will carry much of the Eagles' goal-threat, as league top goal-scorer Glenn Murray is out with a knee injury. Young midfielders Yannick Bolasie and Jonathan Williams also have the potential to make a big impact upon the final and both have made a big impression at Selhurst Park this season. Bolasie is well known for his strength, speed, dribbling and crossing attributes, whilst Williams is a brilliant ball carrier, with terrific pace and a great eye for a killer pass.


    In addition, captain and club player of the season Mile Jedinak has stolen the hearts of many CPFC fans with his all-round contributions this campaign. Expect the centre-midfielder to make his presence felt all over the pitch, for this Aussie is super competitive and will be looking to dominate any physical battles that occur. Finally, goalkeeper Julian Speroni will have a crucial role to play in keeping out the free-scoring Watford forwards, and will need to be on top form to stop Vydra, Deeney and co.


    Predicted Line-ups:


    Watford: Almunia, Doyley, Briggs, Cassetti, Ekstrand, Anya, Abdi, Chalobah, Hogg, Deeney, Vydra.


    Subs: Bond, Hall, Pudil, Eustace, Battocchio, Geijo, Forestieri.


    Crystal Palace: Speroni, Ward, Gabbidon, Delaney, Moxey, Jedinak, Dikgacoi, Williams, Garvan, Zaha, Wilbraham.


    Subs: Price, Ramage, Richards, O’Keefe, Moritz, Bolasie, Phillips.


    Predicted Outcome:


    Traditionally matches between Crystal Palace and Watford have resulted in goals, and on top of that these two sides are the top two highest goal-scorers in the Championship this season (Watford 85, Crystal Palace 73).


    It would thus seem a pretty straight forward conclusion that this final will throw up some goals. However, although Zola’s side may prefer an attacking approach, it is likely that Ian Holloway’s side will look to keep it tight defensively and then operate on the counter attack, just as they did against Brighton in the semi-finals.


    Therefore, I am predicting that this will be a much tighter contest than many are predicting. Watford go into the game as firm favourites, but Palace will surely be relishing the tag of underdogs.


    Palace performances under Holloway have been somewhat inconsistent, but with the inevitable cup final atmosphere, the Eagles surely cannot fail to turn up for this one. In Zaha and Bolasie they have the players to cause Watford problems on the counter-attack, but they will really miss the goals and work rate of Glenn Murray up front.


    The Hornets are likely to play in the same way that they have done all season under Zola, they average 1.9 goals per game, and will thus look to go out and exploit the weaknesses in the Eagles’ backline.


    The stage is set, both sets of fans will be out in force and it is set to be an intriguing contest on the pitch. Who will come out on top, Palace or Watford, Holloway or Zola?


    Predicted Result: As an ever optimistic Palace fan, I’m hoping the Eagles might nick it 1-0. Yet again, I would not be surprised to see Watford’s forwards run riot, score 3 goals and win it for the Hornets. 
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