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.
Before Watford and Crystal Palace clash on Monday, who has a greater chance of establishing themselves in the top-flight, and avoiding the dreaded drop?
Watford will be severely tested by an imposed transfer embargo due to the financial misconduct of former owner Laurence Bassini, which will ban them from making any purchases over the summer. One could suggest the side will be under extreme duress to gain results in the first half of the campaign.
However, manager Gianfranco Zola managed West Ham United between 2008-2010, and after a rough start he is beginning to become a fine managerial prospect. His achievements with Watford have been remarkable for a club not expected to challenge for promotion.
The attacking flair of his playing days with Chelsea has been integrated into his squad, evident by the side’s league-high 85 goals this season. It could hold them in good stead for their first top-flight campaign since 2007, but tightening up a fragile defence will have to wait until the winter transfer market.
Whether the club are within reach of safety by January is anyone’s guess, and Zola could have his work cut out for him.
On the other hand, Palace have spent thirteen previous seasons in the top-flight – last time in 2004-05 – and have a parochial support desperate for stability. They will be buoyed by Holloway’s Premier League experience with Blackpool just two years ago. The 50-year-old is an astute boss, and having worked with limited resources before he will be the catalyst for setting the tone early on.
Losing Zaha will be a crushing blow, but the £15m from the deal, plus the play-off injection will allow them to strengthen the squad.
It’s glaringly obvious that Palace would have a much better opportunity of consolidating their standing in the top-flight, but don’t count out the tenacious Hertfordshire side.
When the likes of Swansea City can take the league by storm, there’s no reason why two Premier League hopefuls can’t make a lasting impact.
Editor’s note: For viewers in the United States, the game will be shown live on beIN SPORT at 9.55am ET on Monday, May 27 (Memorial Day).
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