A Kevin Phillips penalty in extra-time was enough for Crystal Palace to be promoted to the Premier League after they saw off the challenge of Watford in the Championship Play-Off Final by a single goal.
At the start of the season promotion seemed like a pipe-dream to even the most optimistic Eagles fan but Ian Holloway delivered the ultimate prize of Championship action after a nerve-wracking 120 minutes at Wembley.
Just like the classic cup-finals of the past, the two sides emerged onto a pristine Wembley pitch basked in sunshine to a rapturous welcome with the Eagles fans creating a carnival-like atmosphere thanks to hundreds of red and blue balloons which bobbed around their half of the stadium in the early stages.
However the 15 minutes was a cagey affair with neither side managing to test the goalkeepers but Palace suffered an early blow when Kagisho Dikgacoi picked up an injury and had to be replaced by Stuart O’Keefe.
Soon after though the lightning pace and trickery of Wilfired Zaha came to the fore. On 20 minutes he ghosted past Nathaniel Chalobah and cut the ball back into the path of Owen Garvan but he saw his attempt blocked by Lloyd Doyley.
Opportunities to shoot had eluded the Hornets until the 33rd minutes when a slick passing move allowed Matej Vydra a sight of goal, but he was thwarted by a magnificent sliding tackle by Damien Delaney.
Indeed it wasn’t until deep into the first-half when a shot finally headed towards goal but Ikechi Anya’s drive flew well over from 25 yards when a corner was cleared to him as a first 45 filled with tension but not much action drew to a close.
The second half was a much more open encounter and Chalobah shanked a shot wide before Aaron Wilbraham used his chest to control the ball in the box and hit a strike on the turn but again Palace saw an attempt at goal blocked.
However the big striker had a great chance to put his side in the lead when he broke onto a loose ball after an Owen Garvan tackle in midfield and did well to put Manuel Almunia on his backside but that allowed Joel Ekstrand to get back and get in the away of his shot.
Palace continued to carve out opportunities and had three fantastic chances within 60 seconds. Firstly a great run from Zaha set up O’Keefe whose drive from just inside the box was saved by Almunia, and then when the resulting corner was lofted back into the six yard box it somehow found its way to Wilbraham who again tested Almunia. From that corner Danny Gabbidon found himself unmarked at the back post but couldn’t control the ball and the opportunity went begging.
The Eagles were dictating play and Garvan saw an effort bounce wide after a swift counter-attack and the same player saw a half-volley head straight towards Almunia after a knock-down from substitute Kevin Phillips with 10 minutes remaining.
Four minutes later and Wilbraham could have sealed promotion when he was one-on-one with the Watford keeper but hit the ball straight at him and at the other end Troy Deeney saw a couple of mis-cued efforts go well wide of the target.
In injury-time Palace again pressed and created a couple of opportunities when Zaha again got down the left and saw an effort deflect into the side-netting, and from Andre Moritz’s corner Mile Jedinak headed towards goal but it was caught by the diving Almunia as the game went into extra-time.
Only two minutes into the allotted 30 Julian Speroni had to be at his best to claw the ball away from the feet of Deeney a couple of yards from his line and Cristian Battocchio could only find the Argentinian custodian with a blast from 25 yards.
However in the final seconds on the first half Zaha broke into the area and a tired-looking tackle from Marco Cassetti tripped the winger, and Martin Atkinson was fully justified in pointing to the spot. Phillips stepped up to fire the ball into the top corner and give his side the advantage against his first professional club.
The second half saw the Hornets throw players forward in an attempt to rescue their promotion dreams and Anya saw a free-kick comfortably collected by Speroni and Abdi missed the target with an attempted curler, but in the final minute Joel Ward headed off the line after a shot from Fernando Forestieri and Deeney saw a deflected shot trickle wide as the Eagles booked their place in the Premier League next season.
Palace: Speroni, Ward, Gabbidon, Delaney, Moxey, Jedinak, Dikgacoi (O’Keefe 18), Garvan (Moritz 84), Williams (Phillips 66), Zaha, Wilbraham. Subs not used: Price, Richards, Ramage, Bolasie.
Watford: Almunia; Doyley, Ekstrand, Cassetti; Anya (Forestieri 86), Chalobah (Battocchio 74), Hogg, Abdi, Pudil; Deeney, Vydra (Geijo 46). Subs not used: Bond, Hall, Briggs, Yeates.
|The winning goal by 39-year-old Kevin Phillips from the penalty spot|
From the RTE News / Sports website: