The unpredictable nature of England’s second-tier continued past the close of the season when bookies favourites Brighton and Leicester were both eliminated by the unfancied Crystal Palace and Watford respectively. If this proves anything, it is that momentum going into the play-offs means absolutely jack all.
Brighton came into their bout with Palace with an average of 2.14 points per game since the start of April, over double Palace’s 1 point. While Palace proved that form was irrelevant, Watford proved that momentum meant nothing in a nervy contest with a thrilling ending at Vicarage Road. Leicester had come into the playoffs buoyed by an away win at local rivals Nottingham Forest, while Watford had lost to Leeds in dramatic fashion. The “wounded cat” hypothesis seemingly busted. It actually seems that completely irrelevant, superstitious facts have more of a say. Here are some facts to be skeptical about: over all the play-off competitions, the teams that have finished 3rd (60%) and 5th (55%), Watford and Palace, have made the final more often than the teams that finished 4th (45%) and 6th (40%), Brighton and Leicester. In fact, Brighton’s demise may well have been written in the stars as the team that has finished 4th has not won promotion since Charlton in 1998, while 5 of the last 8 winners have finished 3rd.
Going into the final, both teams will be on a high after their wins. After we thought we would never see the likes of what went down at Griffin Park again, we witnessed lightning strike twice within the space of a month as Troy Deeney struck after Anthony Knockaert gave Nigel Pearson yet another penalty headache (if you need reminding, click here).
In my last post, I mentioned throughout how Brighton were by far the best team on paper; which is a shame, because their team forgot to turn up. Palace were the better side in both second halves (the first half of each game isn’t even worth mentioning), and despite losing Glenn Murray to a freak knee injury in the first leg, they bounced back with aplomb, Zaha bagging a brace to secure an unlikely win at the AmEx. What will have impressed Holloway the most is an even more unlikely aggregate clean sheet, thanks in part to the heroics of the evergreen Julian Speroni from Ashley Barnes. Poyet is now rumoured to be considering his position as Brighton boss after stating in his post-match interview that he had “hit the roof”. Everton may await.
Both teams coming up against each other on such a high will result in what can only be an epic clash full of passion, determination, and hopefully a few goals. Zola, having been able to watch both of Palace’s games, will have been able to identify the cracks in the Palace formation, and Holloway will be doing the same now. I would discuss head-to-head records, etc., but that would be a waste of time, as we have seen numerous times previously. Here are 5 key battles to watch out for in the final:
1. Ikechi Anya and Marco Cassetti vs Dean Moxey and Wilfried Zaha
Watford lined up 3-5-2 against Leicester, and, as it worked, I would expect them to use it again. Holloway would have identified an out-of-position Ikechi Anya at wing-back as the focus of Zaha’s attacking movement. Much like he did with Inigo Calderon, anticipate Zaha looking to get Anya or covering centre-back Marco Cassetti in the book as early as possible, which would either make the game easier for him or force Zola into a tactical change he won’t want to make. Similarly, Anya is one of the best attacking wingers in the division, and Dean Moxey will need to produce the same caliber of performance that he did against Will Buckley if he is to keep him quiet.
2. Aaron Wilbraham vs Joel Ekstrand
A non-entity for much of season, Aaron Wilbraham (or Abraham, as the match commentator inadvertently dubbed him) will likely find himself leading the line at Wembley barring a miracle recovery for Glenn Murray. He played a good game against Brighton, finding space for a few chances and generally making a nuisance of himself. Joel Ekstrand will be instructed to mark Abraham out of the game, making sure not to let him turn or hold up the play and allow the Palace midfield to make runs.
3. Matej Vydra vs Danny Gabbidon
Matej Vydra has been a nightmare for most Championship defences due to his cool finishing, fantastic movement, and confidence in possession. His link-up play with his fellow attackers has been great to watch, and he punished Leicester’s defence for not marshalling him. Danny Gabbidon looked to be the man who stopped Brighton from getting in behind the defence by constantly tracking back, and if he doesn’t do the same again then Vydra will feel more than obliged to punish him.
4. Nathaniel Chalobah vs Owen Garvan
Gianfranco Zola has seen Palace play twice now and will have identified a rusty looking Owen Garvan as Palace’s key weakness. His passing has been a little off since his return from injury, as has his movement, and if he starts in the final then Nathaniel Chalobah is going to have a field day winning the ball off him and bombing forward with it. With Stephen Dobbie returning and Johnny Williams nearing full fitness, Holloway has options if he feels he needs them.
5. Gianfranco Zola vs Ian Holloway
Many will agree when I say that 90% of the reason why Palace are going to Wembley is Ian Holloway’s half-time team talks. On Football Manager, delivering a passionate team talk doesn’t always work, but Holloway makes it work every time. Zola’s tactics have been largely spot on this season, and he has a lot of strength in depth in his squad if he needs to change things around. In my eyes, Zola has to tell his players that is it imperative for his team to come in at half time in the lead, or risk Palace running them into the ground.
I personally think that Watford have the quality to see this one through, but not over 90 minutes. They’ll score a goal at some stage in injury time and Palace will be too tired to recover. Make note of the 27th of May, you will not want to miss this for anything.
Prediction: Watford 3-2 Palace (a.e.t.)