Championship Playoff: Leicester Overcome Watford in Game of Missed Chances

Ryan BaileyFeatured ColumnistMay 9, 2013

LEICESTER, ENGLAND - MAY 09:  Ikechi Anya of Watford reacts after missing a goal scoring chance during the npower Championship Play Off Semi Final  First Leg match between Leicester City and Watford at The King Power Stadium on May 9, 2013 in Leicester, England.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
Michael Regan/Getty Images

The first leg of Leicester's Championship playoff with Watford was supposed to be a goalfest.

The ball was supposed to hit the net so many times that fans of both teams at King Power Stadium would barely get a chance to sit down because of all the celebration.

In their past five home encounters with Watford, Leicester have scored 15 goals, contributing to four emphatic wins. The Hornets have the best away form in the league with 81 goals this season (only Port Vale's tally of 85 goals is better in the entire Football League), while Leicester haven't kept a clean sheet at home since February 26.

All this should have meant a plethora of goals.

Yet Foxes fans had to wait until the 81st minute before Leicester scored a crucial winner that will compound the misery of Watford fans, who watched an automatic promotion place slip through their fingers on the final day of the regular season last week.

When these two sides met in the midlands on the penultimate game of the season, a thrilling 2-1 victory for Watford—featuring a stunning strike from on-loan midfielder Nathaniel Chalobah—Leicester thought their playoff hopes had slipped away.

Yet Nigel Pearson's Leicester are now in the driving seat to reach the playoff final against a Watford side that narrowly missed automatic promotion with a home defeat by Leeds on the final day.

What this match lacked in goals, it made up for with a frustrating array of missed chances from both sides.

Leicester dominated the opening 15 minutes of the match, causing the often-docile Gianfranco Zola to vent his displeasure from the sidelines.

Watford threatened on the occasional break, with Ikechi Anya and Almen Abdi forcing a double-save from the resplendent Kasper Schmeichel before the 20-minute mark.

The son of Manchester United goalkeeping legend Peter Schmeichel kept Leicester in the game with a host of saves, before Manuel Almunia was called up to deal with the best chance of the second half at the other end: a powerful shot from a tight angle from Anthony Knockaert minutes before the break.

Zola was no doubt delighted to have Almunia back between the sticks after he picked up an injury in the warm-up of the aforementioned Leeds match. His absence had led to backup Jonathan Bond being taken off on a stretcher and third-choice, 19-year-old Jack Bonham committing two costly mistakes that denied their automatic ascension to the top flight.

The second half started with a less frenetic pace, but the frustration of failing to find the net started to weigh on the home crowd. NBC Sports commentator and Foxes fan Arlo White summed up the irritation on Twitter:

Could somebody come and pull my teeth out with some rusty pliers? Far preferable than watching #LCFC miss this many chances.

— Arlo White (@arlowhite) May 9, 2013

One man who had every right to feel frustrated, however, was Watford forward Matej Vydra, the Championship Player of the Year who has bagged 20 goals this term—but not a single one since February 23. In the 60th minute, he was presented with a golden chance with only the keeper to beat, but he scuffed a shot straight at Schmeichel in the manner of a player who is short of confidence.

Vydra missed another great opportunity shortly after and was ultimately made to pay in the 81st minute, when David Nugent connected with a Knockaert cross to head home the only goal of the game. Until then, Almunia hadn't had to deal with a single Leicester shot in the second half.

Leicester will be delighted to head into Sunday's second leg at Vicarage Road with a goal advantage, but all is not lost for Zola's side. Away goals do not count in the playoffs, so the Hornets need only register a victory by a single goal, which they have done on the last three occasions that Leicester have visited.

Watford can also seek comfort in the fact that the side that finishes third in the Championship is usually promoted. This has been the case in five of the last seven seasons, including 2005-06 when Watford were promoted.

Nevertheless, Leicester deserved a victory in this entertaining game, and the stage has been set for a thriller in Hertfordshire on Sunday.