Play-Off Final Preview – Four Key Areas

It’s been a long season. Everything’s been written, everything’s been said, and come Monday evening, everything will have been done. Is Watford’s customary seven years in purgatory up? Is it time to go back to the “paradise” of the Premier League? Only Crystal Palace and a winner-takes-all match at Wembley stands in front of us. ITWM takes a look at four key areas that will decide the outcome of Monday’s Championship Play-off Final.

Likely Line-Ups
Likely Line-Ups

Control the Midfield

February 8th 2013, 19:45-20:30 – Watford, led by a glorious midfield combo of Nathaniel Chalobah and Almen Abdi, rule the roost of Vicarage Road. While Chalobah sits, bamboozling opposing midfielders with flicks, tricks and automobile-like acceleration; Abdi surges, connects the dots with feverish yet calm movement, surveys his domain and controls it undisputedly. Jonathan Hogg sits back and enjoys the show, only ever moving to hurriedly swat the occasional fly that somehow makes its way backstage. By the end of this 45 minute period, Watford are two goals to the good, their desperate opponents barely able to get out of their half. Suitably, the goals have come from the two protagonists, a low Abdi drive after weaving into the area and a back post gimme for Chalobah. There’s no coming back from this.

February 8th 2013, 20:45-21:30 – They came back from this. The introduction of Jonathan Williams ruined everything. Where Chalobah, Abdi and Hogg once ruled, Williams now reigned supreme. Watford couldn’t get on the ball, they panicked. The opposition, now pushing forward, were no longer prepared to watch the majesty of Nate’s little two-step first touch or Abdi’s lateral shuffle without mucking in themselves. They got in the faces of the midfield, the harassed, they pressed, and they completely nullified any response. One goal went in from a goal-mouth scramble, then some old bloke who’d wandered onto the pitch got another. The midfield empire came crumbling down while the opposition manager fiddled with his matchday programme.

Friends, that opposition was Crystal Palace. The VERY SAME that we face in the season’s curtain call on Monday.

It’s vital that we don’t let the same thing happen again. When our midfield is able to get on top and go through its whole breadth of motions, they’re hard to stop. When they’re not, our attacking output is massively reduced, and we’re forced to rely on Troy Deeney making the most of scraps and Ikechi Anya running the left back into the ground. Speaking of which… 

Ikechi Anya vs Dean Moxey:

Watford’s two semi-final performances against Leicester were very much chalk and cheese. But one element that carried over from the nervy loss at the KP Stadium to the confident, buccaneering victory three days later was Ikechi Anya’s place in the thick of the action.

Anya is not always the most productive winger: his crossing is temperamental and he is often overly-ponderous in possession, but you simply cannot fault his engine and his willingness to get back on the horse over and over again. When the side faces a brick wall in other areas of the pitch, Anya is always there, ready to get on the ball and give the full-back another go. Hogg and Deeney, two players who had played approximately half of the tie, flooding up the pitch so late on against Leicester was impressive, but to see Anya – nearing his 130th minute of high-tempo action within three days – pluck Cassetti’s clearance out of the air and completely skin Andy King before calmly playing in Forestieri was inspiring, and it was a feat that nobody else on the pitch could have managed in that moment.

Dean Moxey is one of the less-heralded members of this Palace side. The Exeter-born defender has never really been more than a squad player since he was brought to the Championship by Derby in 2009 and has made 22 starts this year. He’ll have to be willing, and able, to keep up for ninety minutes if he’s to cope with Anya’s tireless pace. For the first half of the season, Anya was a bit-part player hoping to get something of a chance in the English game. Thanks to the injury crisis in defence, leading to Marco Cassetti’s conversion to the centre, he has got his chance, and is now one of the key characters going into a Wembley final. Fairytale.

Take Care of Zaha:

After years of being a precocious talent that never quite managed to mould his physical prowess and startling technical ability together consistently enough to make the step up to the Big League, this season Wilfried Zaha has finally matured into an undeniably great Championship player. So thrilling was his start to the campaign that he was awarded a November call-up to the Senior England side for a friendly in Sweden. His form also, of course, cemented a move to Manchester United. In January, Zaha was the ‘It’ player in Britain.  Since then, his lustre seemed to die down a bit: whether he was simply lacking form or winding down in preparation for his commutes to Carrington in August can’t be said, but it must be argued that his diminished returns were one of the key factors in Palace suffering a woeful end to the season that saw them win just one of their last ten games. Stop Zaha, and you’ve gone a long way towards stopping Palace.

In February’s clash at Vicarage Road, Zaha switched flanks with his partner in crime Yannick Bolasie on several occasions. When on the left, he was kept silent by a man-to-man defender of exceptional renown – Lloyd Doyley. That day, Cassetti was on the right, and for all of his virtues the Italian is not the man to track a veritable whirlwind like Zaha. Anya will take over that duty on Monday, and as stated above, he will never give up the fight, whether it’s in attack or defence.

This is rendered moot, of course, if Zaha lines up on his favoured right side; the side that poses Watford’s biggest selection problem. Should Briggs or Pudil start on the left? I know which one I’d choose, and I’d wager that most fans feel the same, but Briggs’ selection in the second leg against Leicester suggests it’s not a done deal. Whoever is selected will have a big job on their hands. Cassetti will be the man at the back on that side this time, and is always liable to get turned around by a man with Zaha’s speed of feet and thought. It is essential that he gets help from his wing-back. Pudil had a torrid time against James Milner at the Etihad in January, getting skinned time and time again – if that happens again, Watford are in big trouble.

The trick will be to prevent Zaha from getting too deep into our half. With Jonathan Hogg deployed to double up with Pudil in the centre of the pitch, he can be nullified by never getting a run into the channels and always having to play sideways.

Of course, then there are ten other players to worry about.

Handle the Big Occasion:

All things being equal, I think it’s fair to say that Watford are the superior side in this tie. The league table, after all, does not lie. Of course, in football, things are rarely equal, but a vital deciding factor in a winner-takes-all final is often which team composes themselves best. Everyone involved in our last Play-off victory in 2006 points to the two teams lining up in the tunnel before entering the cacophony of the Millenium Stadium: Gavin Mahon’s Hornets were loud; confident but not complacent, imposing but not bombastic. Leeds were rattled, and it showed.

There have been a few times this season that this Watford side seem to have buckled under the pressure of expectation, and with about 35,000 fans making the short trip to Wembley, that pressure will never be greater. Should the outpouring of emotion – the raucous sensing of fate – that accompanied last Sunday’s 97th minute tension-popper carry over to Monday, this shouldn’t be a problem (not to mention that we have among our ranks players who have caps for Italy and a Champions League Final appearance under their belt), but it is absolutely vital that we settle into our normal irresistible rhythm if we are to emerge victorious.

So that’s it. All we can do is wait, and read the bumper Watford Ob pullout. It’s going to be a long old weekend.



Check out our Preview from a Palace Perspective here.




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