nPower Championship Play Off Final: Will The Hornets Sting The Eagles?

The old clichés about the ‘richest game in the world’ will abound on Monday afternoon when Crystal Palace and Watford face each other in the nPower Championship playoff final.

I’m going to start by looking at the game from a slightly different angle. It’s all very well for the media to chuck ridiculous numbers around, but it’s actually quite interesting to see exactly what the winners can expect next season. Six of the last ten playoff winners were relegated immediately, with their average finishing position being 16th. In that time frame, only West Ham (9th, 2006) finished in the top half of the Premier League.

The fate of the losing team is far simpler. I’ll be returning to my own set of well used phrases in the autumn when I start using the term ‘playoff hangover’ to describe Brighton, Leicester and Monday’s losers when they’ve lost to Yeovil or Bournemouth instead of Chelsea and Manchester United. Only six clubs in the last 20 seasons lost the playoff final and were promoted to the Premier League at the end of the following season and another three clubs reached the playoffs but lost in the third round. The good news for the playoff losers: only once in the last 20 seasons has the playoff runner up been relegated (Leeds in 2006)

Watford’s current team isn’t as good as the sides that won promotion in 1999 and 2006, both of which spent one season at the top level before finishing in last place. The current Crystal Palace side is roughly around the same level as the teams that were promoted via the playoffs in 1997 and 2004, but once again, both those squads were relegated after one season.

So who will join Cardiff and Hull in having to buy a new heat transfer machine for replica shirts next season? It’ll have to be another different angle here, as it’s an away game for both teams. As I mentioned in the semi final previews, neither of these teams have exactly been in form recently. Palace’s 2-0 win at the Amex a couple of weeks ago was only their second win in their last ten away games and although they’ve been better defensively of late, the last time the Eagles won consecutive away games was around the time the clocks went back. Watford have managed to win four of their last ten games away from Vicarage Road, but they lost five of the other six – it’s either boom or bust for the Hornets.

From a wider perspective, the Championship playoff final is normally a straightforward game. Sixteen of the last 20 games were settled in normal time and of the four that went into extra time, only half were decided by penalties – the last time that happened was in 2002, when Birmingham beat Norwich at the Millennium Stadium.

In the context of third v fifth finals, the stats are bit cloudier. There have been six games that fit the bill in the last two and the higher placed club has won three of the last five, but the interesting angle here is that these games usually feature a few goals. Here’s the rundown:

1996: Leicester 2-1 Crystal Palace (AET)

2003: Wolves 3-0 Sheffield United

2006: Watford 3-0 Leeds

2009: Burnley 1-0 Sheffield United

2011: Swansea 4-2 Reading

2012: West Ham 2-1 Blackpool

What’s interesting about that is that eight of these clubs are currently still in the Championship – only Swansea and West Ham are still in the Premier League and both the playoff finalists from a decade ago will be playing in League One in August.

Verdict: I’m expecting a cagey half an hour to begin with, but in the fifteen minutes before half time in their last ten away games, Watford have scored three times as many goals as Palace have – this is basically Troy Deeney time. Palace are vulnerable during this period – they’ve conceded five goals in that time frame, including two at Brighton and three at Ipswich. It’s also worth mentioning that in their last ten away games, Palace have only scored twice in the first half, whilst Watford scored seven times.

The fun should start after an hour – this is where Palace could make a breakthrough as Watford have defensive frailties. The Hornets conceded goals at Bristol City and Peterborough in this period, which doesn’t exactly bode well and The Eagles scored twice as many goals in the second half of their most recent away games as they did in the first period.

There’s been a goal in six of Watford’s last ten away games in the last quarter of an hour, but more worryingly for Palace this is another period where they’ve conceded goals. I’m expecting the decisive goal to come at this point in the game.

Verdict: Overall, it’s hard to separate these clubs, but one possibly decisive angle is that Watford were one of the most improved teams away from home last season. The Hornets won twice as many games as Crystal Palace did and their goal difference was the best in the Championship. To put Palace’s away form into some perspective, they averaged less than one goal on the road and Peterborough – who were relegated – had a better goal difference on the road. If this holds true on Monday, it’s possible that this game could a rout and Watford will have earned themselves a lot of money and at least one season in the Premier League.

I’ll be back early next week with some thoughts on the final, but my wife’s younger sister is getting married this weekend. Congratulations to both of them, but in a spectacularly poor show of timing, I’m not going to be able to watch the Champions League final and I’m also not expecting to see much – if any – of the last game of the season in the nPower Championship…

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Author: Mike Roberts

A football fan since the 1970s, I take my inspiration from the standard of writing that made Shoot! magazine streets ahead of anything else back in the day. I'm also a complete and utter stathead, which I blame on being exposed to American sports at the end of my teens.