On Monday, Crystal Palace joined Hull City and Cardiff City by being promoted to the Barclays Premier League, defeating Watford 1-0 in extra time in the Championship playoff final.
Wilfried Zaha was the hero, earning a penalty kick for his side in the 105th minute, and the ageless Kevin Phillips took it from there, ripping home the game-winning penalty just above the outstretched arms of keeper Manuel Almunia.
As you might have guessed, there was a ton at stake in this contest. In case you were wondering just how much, Alex Thomas of CNN has it covered:
PR email from Deloitte remind us that England's promotion playoff for EPL place is worth $180million to winners, more than #UCL champions.— Alex Thomas (@alexthomascnn) May 24, 2013
The game started with a rather blistering pace, as both sides traded attacks and the battle in the midfield was quite intense. Actual scoring chances weren't prevalent, however, and the biggest development in the first 20 minutes was Palace's Kagisho Dikgacoi needing to be subbed out with an injury.
Soon-to-be Manchester United winger Zaha created the first solid chance for Crystal Palace in the 20th minute, fighting through two Watford defenders down the right side and centering a pass for Owen Garvan, but his shot was blocked by Lloyd Doyley.
Watford would attempt to get into the action themselves. A bit of clever passing ended with Troy Deeney finding a clearing near the back post. But rather than put his foot through the ball on a volley, the forward tried to play one more pass, instead sending the ball out of play.
Matej Vydra appeared to have a brilliant scoring chance for Watford in the 32nd minute, as the ball cleared to him at the top of the box with a clear shooting lane. But Damien Delaney closed quickly and got a vital block on Vydra's shot, sending the ball careening out of play.
Henry Winter of the Daily Telegraph provided a few thoughts on the first half as well:
Much like the opening stages of the game, the beginning of the second half was a wide-open, free-flowing affair, as both teams traded runs forward. And much like the entirety of the first half, both teams struggled to create legitimate scoring chances.
For two teams that had little trouble scoring during the season, the lack of goals through the first 55 minutes was a bit of a surprise.
Aaron Wilbraham found himself in the clear in the 58th minute, free down the right side of the pitch, but he cut back inside a defender once he reached the box and his shot was ultimately blocked by keeper Almunia.
Zaha once again gave the Watford defense headaches, this time down the left side of pitch. He found Stuart O'Keefe at the edge of the box who freed himself to the right, but Almunia again came up with the save.
Moments later the Watford keeper was clutch again, knocking aside Wilbraham's chip attempt after the striker found himself alone on the ball just yards away from the goal.
Owen Garvan would find himself with a clear shot at goal in the 81st minute, but he sent his shot directly into the arms of Almunia. A minute later, Almunia again saved his club's skin, as Zaha found Wilbraham between two Watford defenders in the box but couldn't beat the Watford keeper.
Zaha created a chance for himself late but didn't shoot when he had the chance, instead dribbling and hoping to put himself into shooting range, though he did eventually win a corner. On the ensuing corner Mile Jedinak put his head to the ball but Almunia, the best player on the pitch during regulation, made another brilliant save.
After 90 minutes, the game remained scoreless. Paul Carr of ESPN provided a quick history lesson on playoff finals that went to extra time:
This is the 3rd Championship playoff final to reach extra time. Both others went to penalty kicks (1998, 2002).— Paul Carr (@PCarrESPN) May 27, 2013
Not to be outdone by his Watford counterpart, Julian Speroni got in on the action just minutes into extra time, punching Deeney's effort to safety as the Watford man tried to circle around the keeper on the far post.
Streaming down the left side of the box, he zipped past defender Marco Cassetti, who tried to poke the ball away but instead clipped Zaha's legs, sending him to the ground in the box and earning Crystal Palace a penalty.
Watford still had 15 minutes to equalize, however, and the club wasn't about to give up. Deeney was fouled from about 30 yards from goal in the 113th minute, setting up a dangerous free-kick attempt. But Speroni read Almen Abdi's intentions, stepping in front of the clean strike to make the easy save.
Watford nearly tied the game in the 130th minute of play, as Fernando Forestieri's shot from inside the box beat Speroni. But Joel Ward played the role of hero, heading away the curling attempt on the back post and denying the golden chance for Watford.
Watford continued to press forward in stoppage time but Palace held firm, winning the thrilling playoff final, 1-0.
BBC Sport caught up with the heroes, Zaha and Phillips, after the game:
Wilfried Zaha: "I'm speechless, My dream has come true. I'm happy to leave Palace now they're in the Premier League too." #playofffinal— BBC Sport (@BBCSport) May 27, 2013
Kevin Phillips: "I scored at the old Wembley and now I've scored at the new Wembley. If that is my last game what a game to sign off with."— BBC Sport (@BBCSport) May 27, 2013
If this is indeed a Crystal Palace send-off for Phillips as well as Zaha, it was a heck of a way to go out.
Manuel Almunia, Watford: A+
Crystal Palace really bossed the final 30 minutes of regulation, creating chance after chance. And time and time again, Almunia denied them a goal, keeping Watford even despite being outplayed. He was excellent in this contest.
Aaron Wilbraham, Crystal Palace: C+
Wilbraham had so many opportunities to put Palace ahead and he just couldn't do it, lacking the last little bit of class needed to finish. He certainly put himself in dangerous positions throughout the match, but his inability to capitalize on that fact was nearly costly.
Marco Cassetti, Watford: C-
Cassetti went from playing well to being this game's goat, giving away the penalty kick that ultimately was the difference. Zaha is tricky on the ball, no doubt, but Cassetti's attempted tackle was just a terrible decision and the difference in the game. After 105 minutes of solid play, one poor decision cost his team dearly.
Wilfried Zaha, Crystal Palace: A
Zaha was wonderful in this match, as his runs down the right side gave Watford defenders fits all game long. There's no doubting he was the most talented man on the pitch, and earning the decisive penalty kick for his team was obviously huge.
But his final ball wasn't always accurate and his decision-making at times left something to be desired, as he chose to take an extra dribble or two with the ball instead of decisively shooting or finding an open teammate.
Still, an excellent performance from the winger.
|Manuel Almunia ||GK||A+|
|Lloyd Doyley ||D||B+|
|Joel Ekstrand ||D||B+|
|Marco Cassetti ||D||C-|
Ikechi (Off 87') ||M||B+|
|Nathaniel Chalobah (Off 75') ||M||B|
|Jonathan Hogg ||M||B-|
|Daniel Pudil ||M||B-|
Almen Abdi ||M||B|
Matej Vydra (Out 46') ||F||B|
|Troy Deeney ||F||C+|
|Alexandre Geijo (In 46') ||F||B-|
|Christian Battocchio (On 75')||M||C+|
|Fernando Forestieri (On 87')||F||C+|
|Joel Ward || |
|Damien Delaney ||D||A-|
|Dean Moxey ||D||B+|
Kagisho Dikgacoi (Out 17') ||M||Incomplete|
|Mile Jedinak ||M||B|
Wilfried Zaha ||M||A-|
|Owen Garvan (Off 85')||M||B|
|Jonathan Williams (Out 66') ||M||B-|
|Aaron Wilbraham ||F||C+|
|Stuart O´Keefe (In 17')||M||B|
|Kevin Phillips (In 66')||M||A+|
|Francisco Andre Moritz (On 85')||M||B-|
For Crystal Palace, what's next is a spot in the Premier League and $180 million at their disposal. Yes, they'll be losing top player Zaha to Manchester United, but they certainly have the funds to replace him now.
For Watford, it's back to the Championship and back to the drawing board, as the team will once again try to qualify for the Premier League next season.