The revamped Wembley Stadium is once again flourishing as the hub of major football occasions. On Monday, the home of football will turn its attention to the most lucrative football match on the planet. It’s not the just-played Champions League Final. It’s the Championship playoff to decide which club will be promoted to the Premier League.
Watford and Crystal Palace will fight it out for a £90 million payout, and more importantly a coveted position among the Premier League elite. The Championship play-off final is a game that radiates drama and passion in volumes.
One way or another, there will be ecstasy and misery.
Watford could have secured automatic promotion on the final day of the season at home to Leeds United, but lost and Hull City took full advantage.
Finishing in third-place, the Hornets faced Leicester City in the two-legged tie, a team they defeated twice in the league this season. The manner in which they reached a spot at Wembley was attained in the most surreal circumstances.
Leicester midfielder Anthony Knockaert won a dubious penalty much to the dismay of the hostile Vicarage Road faithful. At 2-2 on aggregate the Foxes’ destiny seemed assured, only for ex-Arsenal goalkeeper Manuel Almunia to make an incredible double save. Astonishingly, within twenty seconds the home side booked their place in the play-off final when Troy Deeney thumped in a shot to send the crowd into hysterics.
That extraordinary finish made their upcoming opponent’s passage to Wembley seem subdued. Nonetheless it was achieved after Palace reversed a torrid run of form, after limping into the play-offs in fifth spot to face a red-hot Brighton and Hove Albion.
A first-leg goaless draw at Selhurst Park did little to alleviate the fears of a swift exit. Palace had just a solitary win from their past 11 games, their end-of-season capitulation almost saw them miss out on a play-offs spot completely.
Ian Holloway’s team travelled south to face a team that had gone 10 games unbeaten and hadn’t suffered defeat at home since January. Without the league’s top scorer Glenn Murray for the return leg, the omens looked heavily against the Eagles, only for Sir Alex Ferguson’s final signature Wilfried Zaha to score a fine brace.
It was the first time the prodigious winger had scored away from home since October, and just the second time since he confirmed a move to Manchester United in January.