It was a cagey, tense affair at Wembley for the Championship playoff final. Both teams wanted to win, but both definitely didn’t want to loose. Palace huffed and puffed, trying to take the game to Watford in the first half, which they did predominately thanks to the highly rated Zaha, but never really threatened Almunia’s goal. Likewise, Speroni remained untested. The below par Watford only managing fleeting glimpses of the stylish football Zola has delivered this season.
The second half started as drab as the first, but Palace soon found a rhythm and an outstanding Almunia was called into action on a handful of occasions as the game grew in tempo and intensity. The Eagles dominance increased partly thanks to a shocking afternoon for veteran fullback Cassetti, but still no break through for either side led to the inevitable extra time.
With penalties looking odds on it was Cassetti, who’s afternoon went from bad to worse, that gave away the penalty in the first period of extra time, chopping down the fleet footed Zaha in the box. Up stepped the ageless journeyman goal getter, super Kevin Phillips, who powered the very well taken pen into the top right leaving Almunia without a chance.
Watford came close on the second period of extra time with Ekstrand’s shot headed off the line by Joel Ward but it was Palace who were celebrating come the final whistle
I can’t help but feel a bit sorry for Zola. A legend of the game and a humble, likeable man who since his spell at Watford began, has them playing with an attacking flair. Entertaining and stylish, Zola’s character has been stamped on his team in relatively short space of time. It’s unfortunate that they never really started in this game. Perhaps the occasion got to them or maybe a team of loanee’s didn’t really have the stomach for a fight when it really mattered. But that’s not to take anything away from Crystal palace. They thoroughly deserved their win and if not for Almunia could of wrapped it up in normal time. Zaha threatened all afternoon and perhaps a loan back to Palace, once he officially joins United, would help develop him further.
The eagles return to the top flight also see’s the return of Ian Holloway. The media loves him for his zany, sometimes surreal quips but often I find he more feels like a petulant sore loser than comedic quote machine. However he carries himself, he’ll have his work cut out to keep his club with the English elite. Throughout the final there was a theme of poor decision making and a lack of quality that, in all fairness, could have been down to the pressure of game, but as Reading a QPR found out, must be addressed. As the cliche goes, the Premier league is unforgiving and these sort of flaws will surely be punished.