Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Championship play-off final preview: Crystal Palace v Watford

In the final of the Football League play-off final, it's the biggest prize of them all with the Championship play-off final which sees the winner promoted to the Premier League. Last season saw West Ham score a late winner to beat Blackpool at Wembley. This year will see the return of a former Premier League side as Watford play Crystal Palace on Bank Holiday Monday.

Crystal Palace:
Ian Holloway's men secured a play-off place on the final day of the season with a home win against relegated Peterborough United. Holloway was introduced as manager in November 2012 taking over from Dougie Freedman who made his way north to Bolton. Funnily enough Bolton missed out on the play-offs leaving his former side just ninety minutes from the Premier League. The Eagles overcame Brighton in their semi finals, but will play without top scorer Glenn Murray. The striker ruptured his cruciate ligament in the first leg against Brighton and is set to be out for nine months. Star winger Wilfried Zaha will now be looked upon as the talisman and player to take them up to the Premier League. The England u-21 international will play his last game for Palace as he moves on to bigger and greater things in the form of Manchester United next season. The pacey wide man has just the eight goals to his name this season, but his two goals saw Palace overcome Brighton in the second leg of the tie.

Watford were a penalty kick away from missing out on the play-off final as they witnessed a remarkable 90 seconds in the final moments of their semi final. Having seen Manuel Almunia save Anthony Knockaert's late penalty, the Hornets went up the other end and secured their place at Wembley through a strike from Troy Deeney.

We spoke to Watford fan Stephen Fletcher @sfletcherWFC about the semi final and what he's made of the season so far.

Describe the emotions you went through in the final moments of the semi final against Leicester?
Stephen: It is nearly impossible to describe what the 16,000 people packed into Vicarage Road went through in the last minute of that match; I still struggle to comprehend it! When the referee gave Leicester a penalty, we thought our season was finished. A season of hard work finished in an instant by a penalty. It didn't even cross my mind that 20 seconds later I'd be in the biggest crowd eruption of my life, as the Golden Boys booked their place at Wembley, thanks to the unbelievable counter from Almunia's fantastic double save. Talk about going from one extreme to the other; I've never seen anything like it.

How much would it mean for you as a fan to see Watford get promoted?
Stephen: We've had an unbelievable year and promotion would obviously be the icing on the cake, especially to do it at Wembley. We've played some of the best football Vicarage Road has ever seen this year and it would be a fitting end to a wonderful season. We've got a couple of good omens as well, for example, we got promoted through the play-offs in 1999 and 2006, so to do it again this year will mean we get promoted every seven years. Another bit if history we stand to make is that we'd become the first team to get promoted from the play-offs at three different venues in the form of the old Wembley (99), Millennium Stadium (06) and the new Wembley this year. Fingers crossed.

Some people have criticized Watford and Zola for their use of the loan policy this season, what do you make of that?
Stephen: Whilst I understand the criticism of many fans, managers and pundits alike, the key thing is that no rules were broken and we’ve just utilized a system which has allowed us to compete. Most Watford fans like to point to the successful model of our owners, who control La Liga side Granada and Seria A side Udinese, and they’ve achieved success through a great business model and through their acclaimed scouting network. I believe our model for business is much healthier than that of the big clubs who spend tens or hundreds of millions of pounds. Whatever people think of it, two things have been evident to Watford fans this year: the style of football is befitting of the Premier League, and the loanees have a passion, desire and love for the club. 

Will you be making the trip to Wembley?
Stephen: I’ll definitely be at Wembley on May 27th; it’s going to be an unbelievable sea of yellow in the Watford end. I feel like nothing can happen at Wembley that can match what we saw at Vicarage Road against Leicester, but we will be loud, proud and very yellow.

In three words, describe you season so far?
Stephen: Exhilarating, intense & wonderful

What is the main reason behind such an excellent season?
Stephen: As mentioned above the loaness have come in and Gianfranco Zola has done incredibly well to create a brand new team, a new formation and a new style of play that Watford fans simply haven’t seen before. The passion the players have shown has been matched by their hunger and it has all combined to make it a memorable season. The final 20 seconds against Leicester in many ways summed up our season.

Almen Abdi
picture: watfordobserver.co.uk

Which player should we look out for Watford and why?
Stephen: Though Matej Vydra won the Championship Player of the Year award, for me the player to watch is Almen Abdi. The Swiss central midfielder is arguably one of the best players Watford have had, definitely in the recent years, possibly ever. He’s calm, composed, doesn’t give the ball away easily and is a major goal threat. Xavi may never play in the Championship but Almen Abdi is probably as close as we are going to get.

Danger player for Crystal Palace and why?
Stephen: It has to be young Wilfried Zaha; the £15 million man. Two semi-final legs against Brighton saw the two rivals at a deadlock, and the game didn’t look like going anywhere, until Zaha popped up with two big goals. He is the game changer, and the man we need to stop in the final. 

How do you rate your chances against Palace?
Stephen: The circumstances that saw us reach the final is just what our team needed after we missed out on automatic promotion on the final day against Leeds, and with renewed confidence and the squad absolutely buzzing I think we have a great chance. If we play the game, not the occasion, and play the football we are capable of we will win the game, I have no doubt. 

Predicted line-up?
Stephen: (3-5-2) Almunia; Doyley, Ekstrand, Cassetti; Anya, Hogg, Abdi, Chalobah. Pudil; Deeney, Vydra.

Stephen's score prediction:
Watford 3-0 Crystal Palace

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