Inexperience cost Watford against Crystal Palace, says former Arsenal goalkeeper Manuel Almunia


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The Independent Football

Captain Manuel Almunia believes youthful inexperience of the big occasion was the overriding factor behind Watford's frustrating below-par performance in yesterday's npower Championship play-off final defeat to Crystal Palace.

The Hornets failed to really get going all afternoon in front of 82,025 spectators at Wembley in a showdown worth £120million for the victors - the biggest financial prize in world football.

Gianfranco Zola's side earned rave reviews all season for their free-flowing attacking brand of passing football, led by the likes of Matej Vydra, Almen Abdi, Troy Deeney and Nathaniel Chalobah.

But it was left to Watford's rearguard to keep the Hertfordshire club in the encounter before it was eventually settled by Kevin Phillips' extra-time penalty.

"It's a final, there's always a winner and a loser," said former Arsenal goalkeeper Almunia, who himself made a string of superb second-half saves.

"We didn't play our football, we didn't display our quality and Crystal Palace did. They showed how strong they are. It's a massive frustration.

"We have a young side and they have to get used to these kind of games, mentally you have to be prepared to be in front of 80,000 people. It's not easy because it's the first time for many players and Palace have very experienced players.

"But for some reason we didn't play our football and there are no more chances this season to go up."

And the Spaniard knows the agony of play-off final defeat - particularly after their dramatic semi-final win over Leicester - will only increase for all involved over the coming days before they come to reflect on a season which delivered plenty of positives.

"We will have a lot of pain in a few days. The next few days it will be hard to accept that we are still in the Championship," the stopper added.

"But when next season starts, people will look back and say 'last season was unbelievable and we have unbelievable memories of being at Wembley, (and) the Leicester game'.

"The fans will look back and they will be very proud of us."

Almunia arrived at Vicarage Road from the Gunners last summer as part of a transformation of the club under new owners the Pozzo family, who appointed their fellow Italian Zola as manager.

A flood of season-long loan players from Serie A side Udinese and La Liga outfit Granada followed - with the two clubs also owned by the Pozzos - a move which attracted criticism from some quarters as Watford challenged for automatic promotion.

Those deals are now at an end and it remains to be seen whether the likes of 22-goal top scorer Vydra and influential playmaker Abdi will sign permanently.

But Almunia is hoping Watford will be able to build upon this season when they return to action for a seventh successive year in the second tier come August.

"We have to start again from zero because we have many players on loan. We have to settle our squad and be better next season, that will be very, very hard with the strong sides," he said.

"But we have to keep Gianfranco's football philosophy, our style, because this season we proved this style is good for our squad.

"The final was a big experience for us and most of the young players will benefit from it, they will be more impressive next time when we play a final."