Both places in the Championship Play Off Final have been finalised after thrilling semi finals saw Watford and Crystal Palace book their place at Wembley.
Watford were already in the final before last night when Brighton hosted their rivals Crystal Palace at the Amex. Brighton were huge favourites going into the game after earning a 0-0 draw at Selhurst Park and knew that any victory would be enough to send them to Wembley for Championship play off final, a game they had never competed in before.
Glenn Murray was also a big loss for Palace having been injured in the first leg, this meant even more of the spotlight fell upon Wilfried Zaha, possibly playing his last game for the club who brought him through their youth ranks before his move to Manchester United for £15million was agreed.
The first half was a stalemate, much like that first leg had been and many were bemoaning having watched 135 minutes of this fixture without seeing any goals. This lasted for while into the second half, with both sides having spells camped in each others halves.
Is was Fergie’s last ever signing that finally provided the deadlock, proving that even when retiring the Scotsman is still a master of the game. He caught Wayne Bridge napping and moved inside him to meet a whipped cross with his head, sending the away fans into raptures. This wasn’t long after Ashley Barnes had had a flicked effort tipped onto the bar by Speroni, who was the second best player on the pitch all evening. As Brighton chased the game they were stung by a killer blow by Zaha who broke into the box and after some bright link up play, smashed home the effort that saw Palace fans make the short journey to the national stadium on the 27th of this month.
Watford’s story was infinitely more exciting. They left the Walkers Stadium after the first leg down 1-0 after a David Nugent header, despite having the better of the second half.
Vicarage Road was a sea of yellow as they welcomed Leicester, the Foxes knowing a draw would see them progress. These hopes were dashed when Matej Vydra, the Championship player of the year, smashed home a dipping volley over his shoulder to break a duck that is probably the reason Watford did not go up automatically.
Nugent was to ruin the party for the Hornets once agan, he drifted away at the back post from a corner and planted his header firmly in the bottom corner of the Watford net, putting Leicester 2-1 up on aggregate and in the ascendency.
Things remained this way until half time, both teams still throwing caution to the wind but also becoming increasingly more nervous. The game always seemed like it had more goals in it and Vydra proved he had new found confidence when he linked up smartly with Deeney on the edge of the box and passed the ball cooly into the net, leaving the game as finely poised as possible for the last 25 minutes.
As the minutes ticked down, nobody in the stadium could imagine what was to come. Head injuries on both sides plus a blood injury to Joel Ekstrand meant there was sure to be a lot of injury time and the referee indicated 6 added minutes were all that stood between these two sides and 30 minutes of added time.
5 and a half minutes had been played when Briggs error let Knockaert have possession in a dangerous area. He took a couple of touches before bursting into the box and going to ground in a way some commentators called ‘very easily’ whilst others correctly confirmed was an all out dive. Watford were stunned to see Oliver point to the spot and many were already predicting a huge scandal for football if cheating was too effect the outcome of such an important match. Watford’s protests delayed the taking of the penalty but Manuel Almunia, club captain, in goal was waving his players away, keen to test his skills in a mental battle against Knockaert who had miraculously recovered in time to take the spot kick.
By this time the clock was approaching the 97th minute and the two minutes that followed are unquestionably among the most thrilling you will ever see on a football field. Knockaert, the who Watford considered the villain, fired a weak penalty down the middle which rebounded off the legs of Almunia giving the packed crowd a moment of joyous celebration. But Knockaert saw an immediate chance of redemption as the ball squirted in his direction leaving him with a chance to lot it home. Almunia moved at lightening speed to get up and block Knoackaert’s effort with his chest, leaving the Frenchman in the unlikely position of being disliked by virtually everyone in the crowd, for his dive and his poor penalty. Italian centre-back Casseti hoofed the ball clear and Watford erupted. Sky cameras briefly concentrated on these celebrations but refocused as Anya brought the ball down from the heavens and started the most unlikely of counter attacks. He slotted Forestieri in down the right who crossed the ball in to Jonathan Hogg who had made up amazing ground to nod it across the box to striker Troy Deeney. His slammed finish saw a pitch invasion, players in the crowd and manager Gianfranco Zola on the Vicarage Road turf as he lost his footing in his charge to celebrate with his players.
As the pitch cleared it was over 100 minutes on the clock but the referee allowed one more play, in which hero Almunia claimed the ball and confirmed Watford’s place in Wembley, a position nobody could have imagined they would be just 90 seconds previously.
The match up is sure to be a fantastic one and with both sets of fans only travelling a short distance to the game, it is sure to be packed to the rafters.
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