Crystal Palace and Watford contest the second FA Cup semi-final of the weekend in a rematch of the 2013 Championship play-off final (4pm Sunday on BT Sport 2).
With both teams now safe from the threat of relegation, Palace and Watford’s seasons hinge on England’s leading domestic cup competition, with a place in the final the prize for the winners at Wembley.
A 2-0 loss to Manchester United on Wednesday brought to an end a four-match unbeaten run that has all but secured Palace’s Premier League status. Alan Pardew’s (pictured) side are now nine points clear of the bottom three – the same gap that separates them from Stoke City in ninth place. The south Londoners have won only one of their last 17 games in the top flight, however, and are not as threatening a prospect as they were in the first half of the campaign.
Watford have also suffered a downturn in fortunes in recent months, triumphing in only one of their last eight Premier League outings. Their survival bid was rather more comfortable than Palace’s, though. Despite stories that Quiche Sanchez Flores is under pressure, successfully avoiding relegation and reaching an FA Cup semi-final represents an excellent season for a promoted club like the Hornets. Going one step further and making the final would surely end all of the talk that Flores could be set for the exit this summer.
Pardew is confident that Yannick Bolasie, Joe Ledley, Joel Ward and Scott Dann will recover from knocks in time to feature after the quartet missed the United defeat, with Dwight Gayle also hoping to recover from a muscular problem before the weekend.
James McArthur could be in line for a starting role after making his return from a three-month lay-off at Old Trafford, but Brede Hangeland and Maraoune Chamakh are out and unlikely to play again for Palace this season. Pardew has a decision to make at the top of the pitch, with Connor Wickham and Emmanuel Adebayor vying for selection in the lone frontman role, while Wilfried Zaha, Yannick Bolasie and Bakary Sako are competing for the two spaces out on the flanks, with the former duo the favourites to start.
Watford, meanwhile, have a fully fit and available squad to choose from with the exception of Jordi Amrabat, who was shown a red card in second-half stoppage-time against West Ham on Wednesday and is suspended. Troy Deeney and Odion Ighalo will be restored to the starting XI after being rested in midweek, with defenders Allan Nyom, Miguel Britos and Nathan Ake also in line to return. Ben Watson, who scored the winning goal at this venue when Wigan Athletic upset the odds by beating Manchester City in the FA Cup final in 2013, will be keen to turn in a good performance against his former employers.
This is an extremely tricky game to call, with neither side in particularly good form of late. Watford (best price to win in normal time @ 11/5 with Unibet) are probably the better-coached outfit and generally keep things tighter at the back. Crystal Palace (best odds of 6/4 with Bet365 to win in 90mins) have more individuals who are capable of conjuring a moment of magic from nowhere and turning a match at the blink of an eye. Whether that is an advantage or a disadvantage for the Eagles remain to be seen – relying on flashes of inspiration from the likes of Zaha and Bolasie is only a good strategy when the pair play well – but, overall, Palace’s tag as slight favourites is probably justified.
Our preview’s verdict is that it is worth backing Pardew’s men to edge a narrow victory at Wembley, with extra time certainly possible. It was in the additional 30 minutes that Palace beat Watford in the aforementioned play-off final, with Kevin Phillips netting the decisive goal from the spot.