Forget all of the other Football League play-off semi-finals – this is the one that the lower leagues have been waiting for. To say there is no love lost between Crystal Palace and Brighton and Hove Albion is a bit like saying the Tories and the Labour party aren’t too fond of each other, and their Championship play-off first leg at Selhurst Park looks set to be the stuff of dynamite.
Geographically, the two clubs might not be too close to each other – 44 miles apart, in fact – but make no mistake, this is as fierce a rivalry as you will find, all stemming back to the 1970s when both were battling for promotion under the stewardship of Terry Venables and Alan Mullery respectively.
Current Palace boss Ian Holloway found this out the hard way when he described the rivalry as ‘nonsense’ when he first took charge at Selhurst Park, much to the annoyance of the club’s fans.
He has since changed his tune, stating this week that ‘genuine hatred’ exists between the supporters and it sets a great backdrop, for the neutral at least, to an enticing two-legged tie.
Wembley and then promotion to the Promised Land of the Premier League™ (and its unknown riches) is the prize on offer, and this is perfectly poised.
Three points separated Brighton in fourth from Palace in fifth after 46 games of the regular season and I see the two matches being tight affairs.
As such, the draw tonight at 9/4 is the call over the 27/20 about Palace and the 19/10 on a win for the Seagulls ahead of Monday’s second leg at the Amex Stadium.
It must be said that I think Brighton are the better team, and they certainly come into the match in better form: Gus Poyet’s side are unbeaten in nine league games, while the Eagles’ win over Peterborough last time out was their first victory in ten fixtures.
But most of Palace’s troubles have come on the road. At home, they have been very impressive, coming into the play-offs on a run of just one defeat in 23 games.
Only 12 of those have ended in victory, though, and those ten draws in their last 23 home games are highly relevant against the Seagulls because in Brighton, Palace are hosting the Championship’s draw specialists.
No team in the division drew more matches than Brighton’s 18, whose nine draws on the road were bettered only by Blackburn Rovers, and I think Poyet will fancy his chances of turning Palace over at the Amex, meaning he will be content with a draw at Selhurst Park.
Albion have only won two of their last seven on the road, while three of Palace’s last five at home have ended all square.
And at the biggest price in the 3way market, another draw at 9/4 looks the way to go again.