Palace vs. Watford – the Wembley return match

Palace vs. Watford – the Wembley return match
Apr 15, 2016

Crystal Palace Watford

Crystal Palace and Watford are no strangers to each other. Nor is a Wembley showcase showdown between the two unique either. These clubs have recent history.

May 27 2013. Wembley. Championship playoff final.

With the time ticking down at the end of the first half of extra time, and the deadlock in the multi million pound game still to be broken, Wilfried Zaha is released by the evergreen Kevin Phillips to run at a physically wilting Marco Cassetti. The veteran and wily fullback may have played over 150 games for Roma and been capped by the Italian national team, but at that moment in time he has no answer to the burst of acceleration from the Palace winger. You can see the foul coming a mile away. Zaha, pushing the ball away from Cassetti is already racing past him when the trip comes. Blatant. Penalty. The full back knows it. He’s too weary to argue. It’s been a long afternoon in the baking Wembley sun for everyone.

There’s only one man to take the resulting kick, only one man that you want to trust with that responsibility. There are the scorers of great goals and then there are great goal scorers. Some just seem born with that innate ability, to know exactly where to stand when a cross comes in, to anticipate where a defender is likely to move, to read the goalkeepers instincts in their eye. Kevin Phillips is one of those men. 282 career goals are testament to that. But it’s the temperament too, the been there, swapped the t-shirt. This is a man who’s been to play off finals, but lost them both. It means he won’t let this one slip by.

Placing the ball on the spot, there’s one man to beat. Manuel Almunia may not have been highly regarded at Arsenal, but the veteran is enjoying an Indian summer to his career and has been in sparkling form in the game. If not for him, we wouldn’t be here, Palace would already be the in the Premier League. The man with No. 9 on his back puffs out his cheeks, a little look towards the goal. Behind him a sea of yellow, waving, whistling, anything to put him off his stride, distract him from the prize at hand. The club where he started his career.

The run up is short – just three strides. But that’s all a goal scorer needs. From the moment it leaves his boot, it’s in. The keeper goes the right way but he has no chance; its top corner, right on the postage stamp. The whistle for half time in extra time is almost immediate. Utter elation at one end, deflation at the other. The next 15 minutes are agonising, but the game is won. One shot cleared off the line is all Watford can muster – they know the game is up. In a way it was up when they lost to Leeds on the last day. As is so often the way the team that had the chance of automatic promotion carry that emotional baggage with them to Wembley; the team that scraped into the playoffs on the last day suddenly with the momentum. Life isn’t always fair, but on the day, there was one team that deserved it and one team that played the occasion far better, and that was the team in red and blue.

Fast forward three years, and the two teams return to do battle at Wembley. Once again, it will need to be the team that plays the occasion better that will win the day. Since that day, both teams stock has been on the rise. Following the unlikely promotion, Palace are looking at an equally unlikely third successive season in the top flight, and despite the post-Christmas crash in 2016 now feel like an established Premier League club.

Likewise their opponents Watford are also enjoying themselves in the top flight since their promotion last summer and have done enough to pretty much guarantee that they will be amongst the elite again next season. Indeed, the upward trajectory of both over the last few years following respective brushes with financial meltdown, and prospects of the two teams are very similar; this is a semi-final that sees both teams looking realistically at the final. It’s the tie both teams wanted and an intriguing contest that right now looks impossible to call.

Palace won at Vicarage Road in September, with Watford returning the favour at Selhurst Park in February. Both teams have seen their form swing wildly and with both currently sitting next to each other in the table on 38 points, it would be a brave man to predict a winner.

For both, the semi-final represents a reward for the progress of recent years, but also the opportunity to achieve so much more. Once again, both teams mirror; one FA Cup final appearance and one set of runners up medals. This is the chance to try and go one better. No Manchester City, no Chelsea, no Arsenal and the least regarded Manchester United team in recent memory, for the winners of next Sunday’s clash, the potential rewards on offer will be even greater than the riches of the Playoff final.

From a Palace perspective, the FA Cup has provided a welcome distraction from the terrible winless run that at one point stretched to 14 games, before the ecstasy that you didn’t think it was possible to derive from a 1-0 home victory over Norwich. With league form extremely poor, in results if not always performances, the contrast could not be sharper with the cup run so far. This has been no cake walk to Wembley. Three top 10 Premier League sides, including two away from home, and one challenging for the title in Tottenham have been victims of Palace’s Jekyll and Hyde identity in the Cup.

Despite Palace’s desperate form in the past three or four months, whisper it quietly, but over the last six games, Watford’s is actually worse, meaning there really is no real favourite next Sunday. Similar in a way to back in 2013, although if anything on that day the perception was Watford were the slightly more fancied. It will be anyone’s game.

Watching the clash with Everton on Wednesday, it was good to think back to the playoff final and see how far the club has come in the space of three years. It was also encouraging that Joel Ward, Damien Delaney, Mile jedinak, Yannick Bolasie and Wilfried Zaha, all on the pitch against Everton were all part of that victorious match day squad in 2013. All five are likely to have big roles to play at Wembley again.

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