Football’s capacity for the dramatic has been quite remarkably high this season, but the final 90 seconds of this match will surely never be forgotten by the supporters of both these clubs.
The seven minutes of added time had almost expired when Leicester’s Anthony Knockaert went to earth under the gentlest of contact from Watford defender Marco Cassetti and referee Michael Oliver pointed to the spot. Hornets’ manger Gianfranco Zola was distraught, and even opposite number Nigel Pearson subsequently admitted the decision to have been generous.
Awarded it was, however, and knowing it would almost certainly put his side into the final, Knockaert himself took it, only to see Watford goalkeeper Manuel Almunia block the shot with his feet. The ball rebounded to Knockaert, but this time Almunia saved with his hand, and the ball was cleared. Ikechi Anya picked up possession, played it down the right wing for Fernando Forestrieri, the cross was headed back across goal by Jonathan Hogg, and lashed joyously into the net by Troy Deeney.
Deeney, who began the season in prison for affray, ran to his family in the stands. “They supported me throughout the difficult times, and though I’m not a cryer I nearly did at that moment,” the striker admitted. “As soon as Manuel saved the penalty I knew we were going to score.”
Watford manager Gianfranco Zola, whose faith in Matej Vydra as Deeney’s partner up front was vindicated when the Czech scored twice, the first a quite brilliant volley on the turn as the ball dropped over his left shoulder, the second a cool finish after being played in by the outstanding Deeney, was still emotional an hour after the final whistle.
“It was a very soft penalty at the end of a game like that, and in the last two months I have felt so many times we should have had penalties ourselves,” he said.
“But ‘Manu’ did the rest, and as soon as I saw the ball travelling to our strikers I thought of the film of Brentford conceding against Doncaster,” said Zola, who after Deeney’s shot went in ran on the pitch and fell over.
“I didn’t know what I was doing, I felt the ground slip from under me and I’ve probably pulled something, but it’s OK, I can’t feel it now,” smiled the Italian, a little sheepishly. “That’s the passion, that’s why we love this game.”
Almunia, who is carrying a hamstring injury and had an injection to ensure he was fit to play, was relatively restrained.
“It’s the good side of football for us now, and the bad side for Leicester – I am very sorry for them,” said the former Arsenal goalkeeper.
“What football makes you feel is the same whoever you are playing for. I looked at the faces of my team-mates afterwards and there are not many things that can make you feel this way. When it came to the penalty, it was not a special save, a bit of luck, a right guess.”
Pearson was remarkably calm, after seeing David Nugent’s header equalise Vydra’s volley before his side came within a penalty kick of victory.
“I can’t think of a worst way to lose a match like that. It can be a very cruel game at times, and for the players to experience what they did is very tough. Anthony is distraught.”
He said he was confident he would be given the chance to take Leicester up next season.