One of the most interesting aspects of this season’s Championship playoffs is that at least one of the four sides involved have reached this stage in nine of the last twenty seasons and there’s a possibility that we could have a repeat final. In 1996, Leicester were promoted after beating Crystal Palace.
However, with half of the last ten finals being won by the team that finished in third place, Watford appear to be in the driving seat this season. The Hornets also have the best head to head record against the other three participants this season, but the playoffs are a different kettle of fish altogether.
This season’s possible victims of The Curse Of Fourth are Brighton, but rather than boring you with the details, read about that particular phenomenon here.
LEICESTER v WATFORD (tomorrow, 7:45pm Sky Sports 1)
Leicester: playoff winners in 1994 and 1996, runners up 1992, 1993. Last appearance: 2010 (beaten semi finalists)
The hosts have won only four of their last ten and just one of their last six at the King Power Stadium: a 3-2 win over Bolton last month. This season the Foxes have beaten Hull and Brighton at home, but lost to Palace, Watford and Cardiff at home.
Watford: playoff winners in 1999 and 2006. Beaten semi finalists in 1989 and 2008.
Tomorrow night’s visitors have have won five of their last ten road trips, but only two of their last six and they’ve not won consecutive away games since February. Watford won four of their five away games against the clubs that finished in the top six this season.
Head to head at Leicester: Watford’s recent 2-1 win over Leicester was only their second victory in their last ten league games there.
Troy Deeney’s red card against Leeds last Saturday means he’ll miss this game, but Watford have shown this season that they aren’t dependent on one man for goals. Nathaniel Chalobah, Matej Vydra, Ikechi Anya and Almen Abdi are all capable of finding the net. The Hornets scored the most away goals in the Championship this season and nobody won more away games.
On the other hand, Leicester have got problems in front of goal. David Nugent hasn’t scored in front of his own fans since the end of January and although Jeffrey Schlupp, Chris Wood and Harry Kane have picked up the slack, none of them have scored more than three goals at home since the start of the year. Although the Foxes were reasonably tight at home this season, six teams – including Burnley and Derby – had better defensive home records than they did and only three teams in the top half of the table lost more home games than Leicester.
Verdict: neither team come into this game with much recent form, but this is a game that Watford don’t need to win. The sixth placed team has only beaten the third placed team in the first leg twice in the last ten seasons and both of those sides (Palace in 2004 and Blackpool three years ago) both went on to win the final.
CRYSTAL PALACE v BRIGHTON (Friday, 7:45pm Sky Sports 1)
Crystal Palace: winners in 1989, 1997 and 2004, beaten finalists in 1996, beaten semi finalists in 2006 and 2008
One home defeat in the last twenty games at Selhurst Park, which could mean two things: it either shows how good the Eagles are at home or that another one is due. However, Palace have only won two of their last six games since the start of March and haven’t beaten a top six side in 2013.
Brighton: beaten finalists in 1991.
Only two defeats in their last six aways, but nine draws in their last 20 road trips in the league and 18 ties this season proves the Seagulls are the draw specialists. Have won at Cardiff and Watford in 2012/13, but lost (and failed to score) at Hull, Palace and Leicester.
Head to head at Selhurst Park: Palace have won four of the last six games in the league, but Brighton haven’t scored more than one goal at Palace since Christmas 1983.
Only a desperately late strike from Mile Jedinak last Saturday earned the points necessary to confirm a playoff place for Crystal Palace. Defensively they’ve only kept two clean sheets at home since January, but they’ve performed well at home against the other sides that finished in the top six, only losing to Watford on the first day of the season. For a large part of the season, Palace were over-reliant on Glenn Murray for goals, but Ian Holloway’s signing of Kevin Phillips was inspired. Between them, Murray and Phillips have accounted for thirteen of the nineteen goals the Eagles have scored in the league at Selhurst Park since goalless draw with Bolton in January.
If ever there was a team that was built for the playoffs it’s Brighton. Leonardo Ulloa and Andrea Orlandi and aren’t exactly household names, but along with David Lopez and Will Buckley they are more than capable of scoring goals away from home. One thing that’s been overlooked so far is that Brighton conceded less than one goal per game during the regular season (only Leicester and Charlton conceded fewer goals on their travels) and actually lost fewer away games than both Hull and Cardiff. The other side to that particular coin: they failed to beat any of the relegated clubs away from home – a couple of extra points could have resulted in automatic promotion.
Verdict: Brighton’s defence is the key to this game. Having shipped three goals in the corresponding league game in December, Albion have kept more away clean sheets since then than Palace have at Selhurst Park in the same period. If the Seagulls can keep Murray and Phillips under wraps they should be able to take some sort of advantage back to the Amex Stadium next week, but if Palace can duplicate the same performance as they did in December this tie could be over before the second leg. Having said that, four of the last five first legs between fifth and fourth placed sides have finished with one goal or less and it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if that happened again on Friday.