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Championship Playoff Preview

Never mind the Champions League Final; when it comes to high stakes, the biggest game in London town is at Wembley Stadium on Monday when Crystal Palace and Watford slug it out to join the Premier League rich kids. Deloitte have dubbed it the biggest prize in the history of world football.

It is estimated that the Championship Play-off Final will be worth £120m to the winners, even if they come straight back down again, a likely scenario, according to Coral, who go 4/7 Monday’s winners to be immediately relegated from the Premiership. For the losers, it will be a case of simply drying away the tears and hoping to go one better next time, although that’s far from a given – you can have 9/2 with Coral that whichever of the two doesn’t make it this time is promoted next season.

The Premier League has become so huge financially following even more lucrative deals with TV that you wonder whether it’s possible for either team not to freeze at Wembley. Imagine: one missed penalty, one goalkeeper’s fumble, maybe even one own goal and that’s £120m down the Swanee.

So you look around both camps for cool heads and your eyes are drawn to Watford manager, Gianfrnaco Zola, who may not have taken part in anything as big as this financially, but who has a wealth of big-time playing experience to call upon from a brilliant career in both Italy (including 35 caps for the National side) and in England with Chelsea.

Zola’s managerial CV doesn’t read as well, but, boosted by several players on loan from Italian club Udinese (in the same ownership as the Championship side), he has moulded an impressive unit at Watford, who would have gained automatic promotion to the Premiership had they managed to beat Leeds at home on the final day of the season.

Ian Holloway’s Crystal Palace didn’t finish the campaign as strongly, but have their own Z man with the X factor, Wilfried Zaha, whose two goals in the play-off semi-final second leg sunk arch-rivals Brighton against the odds.

This will be Zaha’s last game for Palace before his big money move to Manchester United and there is nothing he would love more than to give the Club which has been so good to him a final, golden going-away present.

Both Watford and Crystal Palace have good memories of life at the top table – Watford were runners-up in the old First Division 30 years ago and Palace finished third in the top league in 1991.

Watford look slightly the better side on paper and provided they are not weighed down by the gravity of the occasion may just have too much for their South London rivals (Coral go 7/1 a 1-0 win and 17/2 a 2-1 victory), although Holloway had a knack of confounding the pundits when he was in charge at Blackpool and you would never confidently write off a famous victory for the Eagles.

Written by Jon Freeman