Ahead of the Football League Championship playoffs for promotion to the Premier League, I had a chat with SB Nation contributor Callum Hamilton and Mark Yesilevskiy, lead editor of Bolton Wanderers blog Lion of Vienna Suite, about the future prospects for all four playoff teams.
Kevin McCauley: First off, sorry to do this Mark, but Bolton picked about the crappiest way possible to miss the playoffs. Still pretty annoyed by that, or did the fact that you decided Bolton weren't going to make it a few months ago make it easier to take?
Mark Yesilevskiy: Definitely the latter. In February, following an away loss to Watford, Bolton sat 20th in the table. At that point, it became about avoiding a relegation battle rather than aiming for promotion. A good signing led to a shored-up defense which led to a ridiculously good run of form. All of a sudden, Bolton Wanderers were very much back in the mix.
Callum Hamilton: You really can't overestimate how good Dougie Freedman was, even though the table was pretty closely packed. He's basically done at Bolton what Redknapp failed to do at QPR - and this is a guy without any of that experience or reputation. I do think he was insane to take the gig, though - the only reason could possibly be his own wages, which would make me nervous for the future. And you can also look at how Crystal Palace have struggled without him.
Mark: His wages were reportedly half of what Owen Coyle was making with a substantial bonus for promotion. Bolton's board is very worried about the future with the team's current financial situation and are restructuring player contracts across the board. Freedman's relative inexperience led to a wage both he and the club were comfortable with.
Kevin: The team taking your place is Leicester City, who underachieved for most of the season before finally sneaking into 6th place with a plus-23 goal differential. They're in with a chance to go up, so it doesn't really matter how they got here. Are they going to pull it together, or are Watford just too good to fall to a team that inconsistent?
Mark: The Foxes' defense is very good on its day and their goal differential is a testament to that. They have a number of very good options going forward and their goals come from everywhere in the team. Anthony Knockaert has scored some big goals for them this season and Jeffrey Schlupp showed his versatility against Nottingham Forest last weekend, starting as a fullback before moving to forward to add firepower. One could argue that Watford are overly reliant on Matej Vydra, Almen Abdi, and Troy Deeney and if one or two of those three aren't on their game against Leicester's defense, the Hornets could go down without too much of a fight.
Kevin: Knockaert's highlights this season have been outrageous. He scores some incredible goals.
Callum: Yeah, I was almost disappointed to see his winner at Forest was a tap-in to an empty net. Even when they were going through a rough spell, they weren't losing many games, it was very close stuff - they really, really needed a win, and getting it at the ground of their arch-rivals with a late winner is probably the best confidence-booster around.
Kevin: Also, speaking of Troy Deeney, he's suspended for the first leg. How much does that hurt Watford's chances?
Mark: Deeney's absence has the potential to be huge. I haven't done the math on the total number of goals Watford have scored this year but he's second-top on their list with 19 to Vydra's 20. What's that, 1/3 of their goal total?
Kevin: 85 goals for Watford this year, and Vydra's been ice cold lately.
Callum: Deeney's a far better player than Vydra, whose goals don't really tell the whole story at all - he's not even in their top five most important players really, despite being their leading scorer.
Mark: I have to agree with Callum. Even though Vydra scored against Bolton, the goal was not really his doing. Also, I just had a look at Vydra's appearances and didn't realize exactly how long it had been since he scored. His goal against Bolton was his second to last one this season.
Kevin: Yeah, he was on fire in the first half of the year, but he's been absolutely dreadful lately.
Callum: Abdi is the real key player for them in the first leg. He can get goals out of nothing and break down teams - those are the sort of players that make the difference in tight games.
Kevin: Abdi's had a great season. One of Pozzo's best moves was probably sending him to Watford. He would have been a sub for Udinese, but if Watford get promoted, he might be the biggest reasons why.
Mark: Another thing to consider is just how much the fans had turned on Nigel Pearson before the Nottingham Forest match. It seemed that the general consensus was that Leicester were dead and buried and the fans wanted Pearson out. If it's not going the right way for the Foxes, the atmosphere could turn hostile.
Kevin: One more thing before we offer predictions on this series: I'd like to touch on Nathaniel Chalobah, who will probably be the top guy to keep an eye on for casual fans who tune in to the playoffs. The 18-year-old Chelsea midfielder already has four caps for England Under-21 and looks like a star of the future in the Premier League. He looks like he belongs a level higher than he's playing at already. Are Leicester's midfielders good enough to deal with him and either Hogg or Battocchio in the center?
Mark: He will cause a lot of trouble and I believe Leicester will have a lot of issues dealing with him. On a number of occasions this season, we've seen City's players make rash decisions after they've been beaten and concede set piece in very dangerous areas. I'm sure everyone has seen the goal that Chalobah scored against Leicester City and that is a real indication that he can create a whole lot of something out of nothing.
Callum: "Probably not, no" is the short answer to that. With Abdi, Chalobah and Hogg, Watford have a very dangerous midfield in terms of providing a threat to the opposition goal and making forward runs, and Leicester are a good side but don't have a really great midfielder to keep an eye on that. Matty James will probably be trying to stop them, but he's not the quickest guy around.
Kevin: So, predictions? I don't think Watford will look great in the first leg between Deeney's absence and Vydra's form, but I like them to do well enough to set up a win at home and progression to the final.
Callum: It's very difficult to say - Watford and Leicester were both looking like shot bolts a few weeks ago, and they've only just now picked up their form if at all. Watford only really lost to Leeds through some astonishingly bad luck, it was otherwise a good performance. It's really hard to predict a winner, but I think Leicester might just edge them out. One prediction I'd be more confident to make is that whoever wins this tie will win the final.
Mark: I think Leicester's defense will cause Watford some trouble at the King Power Stadium and can easily see that fixture ending 0-0 or 1-1. As we've alluded to earlier, I think Watford's midfield will overpower that of Leicester's and set up a win at Vicarage road, taking the Hornets to Wembley.
Kevin: I definitely agree with Callum, and I think whoever wins the tie between Crystal Palace and Brighton is going to be the underdog in the final. Both teams have had great seasons, though, and have plenty of talent to go along with a couple of great managers.
Mark: For what it's worth, I think Brighton are the division's most underrated team. They're incredibly strong home & away, and like the Spanish Inquisition, no one expects them.
Kevin: I assume the double entendre was intentional.
Mark: You should know that I'm oblivious so let's go with sure.
Kevin: Haha, I assumed it was also a reference to the number of players on their squad who are either Spanish or have extensive experience in Spanish football. Gus Poyet's brought in quite a few players that fit that description.
Mark: I totally missed that. Good spot.
Callum: Brighton are quite hard to judge, really - and over the season they've been very susceptible to form, putting together great sequences of wins and then playing horribly for weeks on end. As it stands, they're in their longest run of good form all season - they haven't lost since mid-march - and teams don't usually lose form going into the biggest game of the year, so the omens are good. If the other game has the two best teams though, this has the two most fun ones. You've got two managers who love to attack, both sides have great and exciting wingers, and both are probably weakest at the back.
Mark: I agree with Callum, their away form is especially strong right now. Brighton haven't lost in four away matches and are coming off wins away to Middlesbrough and Leeds as well as having played out a 0-0 at Peterborough. In their last three road games, they've allowed one goal.
Kevin: Palace are a bit dependant on the play of Wilfried Zaha, who hasn't been the same player since he was purchased by Manchester United and loaned back. Do you guys like him to step his game back up for the playoffs? He was probably the best player in the division during the first half of the season, but he's been anything but recently.
Callum: He's not been great recently, and there have even been rumours that his teammates have taken objection to a perceived lack of effort lately. Palace are the worst of all four teams going into this on form, without question, but there's no chance Holloway will leave him out - if he turns up, the game is won. He's that good.
Mark: I disagree. I don't rate Zaha at all, especially in the second half of the season. Sure, he'll beat a defender for pace or with a stepover but he hasn't scored (or assisted if I remember correctly) in two months.
Callum: It should be said, however, that Brighton aren't a one-man team. Glenn Murray is the sort of striker you can see being a success at a higher level, like Danny Graham has done, and Yannick Bolasie on the other wing is also excellent. That's not to mention another youngster of theirs who I suspect won't be at the club for long regardless of what happens, Jon Williams, who is a remarkably gifted attacking midfielder for his age.
Kevin: I definitely want to touch more on Murray. What do we think about his absolutely absurd goal-scoring record? A total fluke? Or is he a serious threat to bang in a few during the playoffs and help fire Palace to the Premiership? Is he going to depend on Zaha and others to set him up or can he create chances for himself? I suppose if he can't, Brighton's not really the team to expose him, but Callum, you seem to think he's not just a Championship poacher.
Mark: You see that in the Championship relatively often of late. Glenn Murray, Charlie Austin, and Jordan Rhodes, for example, are the types of strikers that just know where the goal is. They're not the quickest or the best with their feet but they'll certainly be able to put into the back of the net if the ball comes to them.
Callum: He is, but he's a good one. I definitely agree with Mark on Austin and Rhodes, and Danny Graham is another great example. They don't create chances for themselves, and they're not the quickest - they're just there to be in the box, and if they get the ball, it's a goal. Because of that though, you need the right supply. They do well with good wingers - that's what Huddersfield had when Rhodes got his insane record, that's what Swansea had with Graham, and that's exactly what Crystal Palace have too.
Kevin: Obviously Grant Holt and Rickie Lambert have been effective in the Premiership as well, so it's not like these guys are regularly fluke players.
Callum: Two other great examples. It's not that they'll be found out in the Premiership, but they just need to be in a team that's set up to their strengths. There are better players than him in the Championship, but he's perfect for this Palace side.
Mark: I certainly wouldn't call him a fluke. He's having a very good year and had a very respectable goal-scoring record at Brighton before moving. I'll admit I didn't watch any of Crystal Palace in 2011/12 but it seemed more than anything that it just took him a little bit to settle in.
Kevin: Again, preditions: Who's going through here? I'm thinking that it's all about Zaha. If he's at his best, Palace will go through. If he's the Zaha we've been seeing since February, Brighton have to be the favorites for me, as good as Murray, Williams and Bolasie are.
Callum: Brighton are probably favourites, but I think Palace will just edge it. Form tends to matter less in games as huge as these, and I think there's a fragility to Brighton that Palace don't really have as much - I think the likes of Jedinak and Dikcagoi will make it really hard for Brighton to get a grip on the game and play the way they want.
Mark: It's Brighton for me. I think they won't have too much issue holding Crystal Palace at Selhurst. They have goals come from everywhere and are not at all overly-reliant on Craig Mackail-Smith. Ashley Barnes, despite a penchant for tripping referees, knows how to score and Andrea Orlandi can be very scary on the wings.
Callum: In short, I think Brighton are a very well-balanced side, whereas Palace are very much a championship side but with four or five Premier League-level players in them - and in recent years we've usually seen the latter type of team surpass the former.
Kevin: And we're all picking Watford to go up?
Mark: Honestly, I think Brighton (given that they continue their run of form) could do it.
Callum: I'm going with Leicester. Or, actually, I'm saying Leicester or Palace.
Mark: I'll say Leicester or Brighton but would like to see Brighton and Gus Poyet do it.
Kevin: One more thing: Let's rank these teams in order of ability to stay up if they get promoted.
Mark: Wow. Watford are a big question mark there depending on who they lose or what Grenada/Udinese talent they can get to come in.
Kevin: I'm going with Watford first, because of the Udinese connection and their access to affordable quality players, followed by Leicester, Palace, and Brighton last. With the Premier League being such a cash cow, you've got to think that Pozzo would prioritize it.
Mark: I'll say Leicester first, followed by Watford, Brighton, and Palace. I have no faith whatsoever in Ian Holloway.
Callum: Well, there are huge question marks over Watford - as well as the small matter of a transfer embargo, although teams are usually allowed to find a way around the rules when they're on the way up for the sake of the spectacle. Nonetheless, with all those questions over Watford, I'm picking Crystal Palace first - they've got Premier League level players, and we've seen time and time again that's what matters. Reading had a very good championship side and were well-managed but never looked like staying up all season. Leicester, I would back to stay up as well. Brighton I'm much less sure about.