Happy Gianfranco Zola
Given the incredible outcome of this game, it would be tempting to dismiss the first 94 of the 97 minutes as irrelevant. That would of course be the greatest injustice to a fine game which had already yielded three wonderful goals; first a brilliant finish from Matej Vydra as the ball dropped from behind him over his left shoulder for a terrific left-foot volley past the helpless Schmeichel. Then the reliable Nugent found space at the far post to rise and guide a great header just out of Almunia’s reach to level the match and put Leicester back ahead, 2-1 on aggregate. Half time, and it was “as you were” with City retaining the lead they’d gained in the first leg at the King Power Stadium.
As the second half progressed, Watford were hammering away and Leicester – although pressed back constantly – seemed to be coping relatively well. Home manager Gianfranco Zola knew he had to change things, and he acted to replace Lloyd Doyley with Fernando Forestieri. Within a matter of minutes, Watford produced a quite excellent team goal, Vydra playing an immaculate one-two with Troy Deeney to score his second from just inside the area. So, we were all square again, and the nearer the match edged to full-time, the more it looked as if an extra 30 minutes were inevitable.
The full ninety had already ticked by and the match was well into six minutes injury time when Anthony Knockaert made his fateful move down the Watford left flank. Showing trickery and strength, he shrugged off a foul challenge outside the box, but then as he progressed into the area, a much lighter touch felled him. As if in slow motion, referee Michael Oliver assessed the situation, failed to call it for the dive it was and pointed to the spot. Watford players were anguished and amazed, Zola on the touchline was clearly stunned, showing with every line of his being that he could see a whole season’s work going up in smoke right at the death. Knockaert placed the ball on the spot as Leicester’s travelling hordes prepared to celebrate Wembley, the penalty was hit low and down the middle but not with great force – and there was Almunia’s trailing foot to stop the ball. Still, Knockaert was closing in on the rebound, surely poised to hammer the ball into the net and finish the matter, but Almunia did it again, rising to his knees to flail an arm at the loose ball, deflecting it to a defender who gratefully belted it out of the area.
And now Lady Luck performed one of those graceful pirouettes for which she is rightly famed. As the Leicester players were still coming to terms with their failure to seal the tie, Watford showed no such distraction, playing the ball out to the right and flooding support into Leicester’s own penalty area. The ultimate end-to-end finale was playing out now, as the ball was crossed from near the right hand corner flag, beyond the far post where sub Jonathan Hogg beat Schmeichel in the air to head down precisely for the onrushing Deeney, who slammed the ball gleefully, unanswerably, into the Leicester net. 3-1 on the day, when it could so easily have been 2-2. 3-2 to Watford on aggregate, when that score had looked like being reversed in City’s favour. The Leicester players stood waiting for the restart as the pitch was cleared of jubilant Hornets fans, transfixed and disbelieving at the turn of events which had seen certain victory turn to catastrophic defeat. A few more seconds, and it was over.
Ironically, of course, if Knockaert had stayed honest and stayed on his feet instead of going down so easily, the game would probably have gone into extra time, and who knows what might then have happened. On such twists of fate are whole seasons decided, and karma had come to Knockaert in its cruellest form, landing the most clinical of knockout blows. He ended up in tears, wandering around the pitch after the whistle, uncomprehending as his desolate team-mates tried in vain to comfort him. Over the two games of this tie, it’s fair to say that Watford deserved to progress, so for once justice was done, and seen by millions to be done in the most dramatic and entertaining manner. But spare a thought for the hapless Anthony Knockaert, hero (albeit with feet of clay) to villain in the space of a few seconds as his world turned upside down. That’s life – and Leicester will continue their life in the Championship next season. Watford, meanwhile, march on con brio – full of confidence. They will now be optimistic of completing their Italian Job and winning promotion at Wembley.