LEICESTER CITY v WATFORD
The npower Championship Play-Offs are set to get underway on Thursday with the first leg of the semi-final between Leicester City and Watford taking place at the King Power Stadium.
Both teams only had their inclusion in the Play-Offs confirmed on the final day of the regular season but it was under very contrasting circumstances.
It was final-day heartbreak for the Hornets as they failed to better Hull City's result and claim the second automatic promotion place, meaning they had to settle for third. For the Foxes, meanwhile, it was a last-gasp Anthony Knockaert strike against rivals Nottingham Forest that ensured they picked up a 3-2 win to snatch sixth place.
That victory at the City Ground against Forest was Leicester's second win in 13 games and manager Nigel Pearson admitted that doubts about reaching the Play-Offs did creep into his mind, although he insists his players are ready to embrace the challenge.
"I think when we got to four or five games before the end of the season, the table was shaping up to an extent where every game felt like a must-win game," he told the Leicester Mercury.
"There is no doubting the fact that when you get to the point where it is no longer in your own hands that is always going to be a different scenario. But we are there now and we have to make the most of it.
"We are in the Play-Offs with the lowest points total, but we are in. We have had to go through a difficult run of form to get there but we are in there and now we have the same chance as the other three sides."
Prior to their defeat against Leeds United on the last day of the regular season, Watford had won two on the bounce, including a 2-1 victory over the Foxes at the King Power Stadium.
It was the same scoreline at Vicarage Road in early November when the teams met for the first time this season, and Gianfranco Zola has vowed to approach the semi-final in the same manner as the Hornets did throughout the campaign.
"We are ready to start the game from the beginning," the former Chelsea star told www.watfordfc.com. "We will see what they will do. It will be the third time we play against them [this season], and they will certainly try and do something different. Although we have played them twice, it's going to be new.
"We don't have to change the things that have been so good for us. We're going to go there and play the game like we did all the others. We'll try to be positive and we'll try to score."
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CRYSTAL PALACE v BRIGHTON AND HOVE ALBION
Selhurst Park is the venue on Friday for the first instalment of the npower Championship Play-Off semi-final between fierce rivals Crystal Palace and Brighton and Hove Albion, with the match kicking off at 7.45pm.
The Eagles come into the game having broken a nine-match winless run on the final day of the season, beating Peterborough United 3-2, and that torrid string of games included a 3-0 defeat at the hands of Brighton at the Amex Stadium.
Ian Holloway's side were criticised for not appreciating the intensity of the rivalry after their loss on the South Coast but the club's Player of the Year, Mile Jedinak, insisted the squad is now well aware of the significance of games against their the Seagulls.
The Australian international told the Croydon Guardian: "The ones that weren't up to scratch with the rivalry know the importance of it now. We know the importance of every game but we know the importance of this one as well.
"We cannot let it affect us too much though, your performance can sometimes slip if you don't control the emotions, so we need to and that is going to be the key.
"There's been a buzz around the place and we are all looking forward to the game. If you had said to us at the start of the season, we would make the Play-Offs, we would have jumped at it."
Brighton finished the season fourth, a place higher than the Eagles, and with the division's best defensive record having conceded just 43 goals in their 46 games.
They also dropped just two points in their last five fixtures and didn't taste defeat in any of their final nine league outings, meaning they come into the Play-Offs in the best form of any of the four teams taking part.
Brighton manager Gus Poyet explained that his players must treat this game the same as any other, even though bragging rights are at stake.
The 45-year-old told www.seagulls.co.uk: "The only thing I don't like about playing Palace is that it's not a normal game - but I want it to be as normal as possible. We need to make it about being a football game, only thinking about football and nothing silly. Over the two matches it could be two magnificent games of football.
"Let's not do anything silly because it's not worth it. Let's remember it's about who plays better on the day and nothing else - and accept that."
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