Could Gianfranco Zola be celebrating promotion?
The nPower League Championship season draws to a close Monday afternoon, as Crystal Palace and Watford do battle at Wembley Stadium. At stake: the right to play in the Premier League beginning in August.
One of the biggest questions that will be asked in the build-up and aftermath of this match is how the teams would fare in the Premier League. Recent history has been kind to newly promoted teams: Of the last nine to come up, only three have gone down—Blackpool, Reading and QPR.
Palace manager Ian Holloway was in charge of that Blackpool side for both the promotion and the relegation. He would certainly understand what it takes to make this leap. Indeed, the Tangerines were not relegated until the last day, as they lost to champions Manchester United.
Holloway also has experience in the Premier League as a player, having spent five years at QPR in the early 1990s. His counterpart at Wembley, Gianfranco Zola, also has plenty of experience in the English top flight with an eight-year spell at Chelsea and a three-year stint managing West Ham.
The two clubs involved here have had a combined five years of Premier League experience since the league's inception in 1992. Crystal Palace has had three of those, the last coming in 2004-05. Watford's last season in the league was 2006-07.
But when breaking things down to see which squad is better suited to take on the Premier League, it is imperative that the actual squad of players is examined.
Crystal Palace's squad has been led by two key figures. One of these is star man Wilfried Zaha, who will be joining Manchester United next season. The winger has been a major revelation for the Eagles, and his sale could net his current club up to £15 million to replace him.
The other major factor in Palace's lineup has been striker Glenn Murray. He racked up a whopping 30 goals in the Championship, topping the league's scoring charts. However, he suffered a knee injury in the playoff semifinals that could see him out for nine months.
Losing these two key players would be a tough way to start a campaign in the Premier League. As such, it would be up to midfield players like Andre Moritz, Kagisho Dikgacoi, Mile Jedinak and Owen Garvan to pick up some of the slack.
One thing they may not have to worry about is their back line. They lost captain and veteran defender Paddy McCarthy to injury before the season started, which might have been a harsh blow were it not for reinforcements.
Summer signings Damien Delaney and Peter Ramage have formed a formidable duo to protect goalkeeper Julian Speroni. The flanks have been well guarded by the likes of Jonathan Parr and Joel Ward. Parr also suffered a season-ending injury late on, but hopes to be back to start next season.
Watford, on the other hand, have had a series of big contributions from a number of players that has seen them score the most goals in the Championship. Leading the way is Championship Player of the Year Matej Vydra, whose team-leading 22 goals in all competitions saw him win the award over Murray.
Second on the team's scoring charts is Troy Deeney. The English attacker burst onto the scene in the dramatic victory over Leicester, scoring the goal to send the Hornets to Wembley in the 97th minute. His 19 goals in league play put him sixth in the Championship.
Almost lost in the fury of Deeney's goal was the spectacular double save by the goalkeeper at the other end not 20 seconds prior. That man was Manuel Almunia, the long-time Arsenal stopper who joined on a free transfer over the summer and has been reliable between the sticks.
Also among the influential faces at Vicarage Road are Fernando Forestieri, who was involved in the build-up to Deeney's strike, and Almen Abdi, a Swiss international whose creativity in midfield has been backed up by a dozen goals.
The one thing that Abdi and Vydra have in common is that they are on loan from Udinese. In fact, Watford have a total of eight on-loan players from the Italians, largely because the two share owners in Giampaolo Pozzo, who took over the English club in July. The clubs made Forestieri's loan permanent in January.
This is the biggest factor that would be working against the Hornets here: they are set to lose about a dozen players once loan deals expire. This includes the eight Udinese men, two from Spanish side Granada—also owned by Pozzo—and one each from Chelsea and Belgian giants Standard Liege.
Also working against Watford is a transfer embargo put in place by an independent disciplinary committee. This stems from unreported third-party involvement in various transfers, including the sale of current Sunderland striker Danny Graham, during the previous owner's tenure.
Who would be the better EPL team?
Per Matt Barlow of the Daily Mail, this would prevent Watford from making new signings until deadline day, August 31. They should be able to make loan signings permanent, an important fact since they've gotten such big results from the players mentioned earlier.
Should Pozzo be able to retain his Udinese starlets, his team looks the better bet to be successful in the Premier League. This group has tons of confidence and a great work ethic under Zola, with a free-flowing system allowing players to express their talents.
This is no knock on Holloway's men. They've built a solid squad of their own and deserve their place in this playoff final. But it seems like their reliance on a couple of main threats—Murray, Zaha and Kevin Phillips are the only players with more than five total goals—could haunt them.