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May 12, 2013

Fine margins favour Watford

As he did so often with his feet in his illustrious playing career, Gianfranco Zola said it with total eloquence in his programme notes. "It seems crazy that a whole season's work should come to such fine margins and a single moment almost," he wrote, "but this is the situation and we accept it and we will rise to it."

Even Zola could not have known how accurate that statement would turn out to be. When the outstanding Troy Deeney smashed home the deciding goal right at the end, after a crazy minute or so of play at either end of the field, Vicarage Road erupted. The goalscorer tore his shirt off, fans piled onto the pitch and even a flare was lit high in the Rookery Stand, perhaps briefly making Zola think he was back in the San Paolo rather than in West Hertfordshire.

Yet it was a fitting climax to a game that was reaching some sort of mania as it went on, with the increasingly inescapable feeling that there was to be some knockout conclusion. Every sinew was stretched on both sides in the quest for Wembley. As we entered the end of the regulation 90 minutes, Watford's ebullient mascot Harry the Hornet even managed to break the skin on his drum, bashing away behind Kasper Schmeichel's goal.

In the final quarter of this game Leicester began to look spent, chasing proverbial shadows as the Hornets' full range of touch, passing and movement was being brought to bear. Yet they hung in there. Deep into stoppage time, the substitute Harry Kane scuffed an inviting David Nugent cross wide - but there was more to come.

Anthony Knockaert went down after minimal contact from Marco Cassetti - "I'd be the first to admit it was a generous decision," said Leicester's Nigel Pearson. Yet Manuel Almunia was primed to save the day, diving low to his left to block the Frenchman's effort, before also smothering the follow-up. Watford broke down the right with Ikechi Anya, Jonathan Hogg headed down his cross and Deeney gleefully smashed in to spark delirium. "We've counter-attacked really well this season," the centre-forward smiled after the game, "so that's symbolic of what we've been up to."

It was the play-offs themselves in extreme microcosm. They offer a new start; a last chance but a chance, nevertheless. This play-off semi-final grew as it progressed, and became a spectacle that belied two sides that had won just five out of 25 matches between them in the final run-in.

Hull's excruciating difficulties in getting over the line to the Premier League perhaps distracted from Watford's own problems in the season's closing weeks. They had won just three times in their final ten matches of the standard season, and were seemingly still enveloped in that poor nick - perhaps more so than the disappointment of missing out on automatic promotion on the final day - in Thursday's first leg.

The suspicion was Leicester had momentum, given to them by that thrilling final day win at local rivals Nottingham Forest in a helter-skelter game decided by Knockaert's last-gasp winner. It was their play-off before the play-offs, and when the real thing began David Nugent grabbed his own second chance in the first leg, bagging a first goal in 17 attempts to give Pearson's side a lead to bring to Vicarage Road.

The once-capped England striker was at it again here, powering home a firm back-post header from Matty James' corner to give Leicester a 19th minute equaliser after Matej Vydra had given Watford the lead with a sublime goal. Cassetti's delightful chipped pass over the top of the visiting defence invited the Czech to smash an almost Van Basten-like volley, left-footed, into the far corner.

That smidgeon of swagger was not, however, something that Watford were able to impose on Leicester throughout the opening period. The stereotype of Watford being a pack of anonymous foreign loanees that has spread simply doesn't hold, but they were forced to show the extent of their integration with a mix-and-match approach by Leicester's excellent organisation. In one moment, the long-serving Lloyd Doyley was slaloming around an unsuspecting Andy King and in the next, Cassetti would fire long to search out Deeney's muscle.

That pragmatism became a must, with the experienced Almunia's harum-scarum distribution frequently putting his side under unnecessary pressure, especially against a side of the Foxes' vigour. Leicester's own recycling habits are of the more direct variety, with Schmeichel's high, looping clearances their first line of attack, and a potent weapon to boot.

It was a day to move away from stereotypes. Leicester have more finesse than just route one, with Nugent a constant menace on the ground as well as in the air. The excellent Knockaert - ironically, a player who has found his fortune in England after being rejected for his size on more than one occasion in France as a youngster - has devilish close control that mesmerises as well as industry that drives to distraction.

They were less and less able to bring their influence to bear after the break, as Watford began to look like their old selves. Leicester were creaking, with makeshift left-back Jeffrey Schlupp just about holding on to wing-back Anya by his coattails. They held firm for long periods, with on-loan Michael Keane and the energetic King making telling interventions.

Zola was forced to shuffle his pack, with Fernando Forestieri coming on for Doyley, switching Watford from three at the back to a flat four with the little Argentinian decamping to the left. Almost immediately Vydra, full of confidence again after ending his recent goal drought, coolly swept his second past Schmeichel after a one-two with Deeney. It was his 22nd of a super season.

Now Watford have the chance to bring their quality to the open spaces of Wembley. Zola gave us one more post-match reminder of his class, interrupting the first question to make a point of praising Pearson ("a gentleman") and Leicester. Even he lost his poise here, though. "I just lost it at the end," he grinned. The story of Watford's season is that intoxicating.

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