Late goal sees Watford into playoff final
WATFORD, England (AP) — Watford’s way to Wembley could not have been any wilder.
The second-tier English team will play for a spot in next season’s Premier League after an improbable 30 seconds in the final moments of its League Championship playoff game against Leicester on Sunday, which saw a penalty — and rebound — saved at one end before a blistering counterattack resulted in a winning goal at the other.
With Watford leading 2-1 in the second leg at Vicarage Road to sit level 2-2 on aggregate, the game was headed for extra time when Leicester was awarded a penalty in the fifth minute of stoppage time. Marco Cassetti nudged Anthony Knockaert in the area and the Leicester player went down theatrically despite replays showing only light contact — and it looked like the visitors would steal a late decisive goal.
However, former Arsenal goalkeeper Manuel Almunia saved Knockaert’s spot kick and then reacted quickly to block the rebound as well. Watford cleared the ball, and Fernando Forestieri raced down the field and sent a cross into the area, which was eventually headed back toward Troy Deeney. The Watford player delivered a perfect volley into the net from 12 yards to seal a 3-1 win, and 3-2 victory on aggregate.
Watford will play either Brighton or Crystal Palace in the playoff final at Wembley, with the winner promoted to the Premier League.
The late goal immediately led to a pitch invasion by hundreds of jubilant fans, and Watford manager Gianfranco Zola even slipped on the wet grass as he raced down the sideline to celebrate.
“I probably bruised something but I can’t feel it now, probably in the morning,” Zola said. “I just lost it, I didn’t know where I was going or who I was chasing. I said to myself I had to keep my composure but when it happens you can’t control it.”
The finale mirrored what took place on the final day of the third-tier League One season, when Doncaster saved an injury-time penalty before scoring on a counterattack to beat Brentford to the title.
“When I saw the ball travelling towards our strikers I immediately thought of Brentford, I had the movie in my mind,” Zola said. “It was a good cross, a good header back and the finish from Troy was as good as it could be.”
In contrast, Leicester manager Nigel Pearson — who took over from the fired Sven-Goran Eriksson in 2011 — was left ruing the missed opportunity.
“I can’t imagine a worse way to lose,” Pearson said. “When you get a penalty you just hope he scores it - then what happened after that compounds the misery. Anthony is distraught as you would expect. I’m the first to admit it was a generous penalty decision. But to concede off the resulting penalty save is very hard to take.
“Unfortunately that’s the nature of the beast.”