WATFORD booked their place in the npower Championship Play-Off Semi-Final this afternoon (May 12), after a dramatic 3-1 victory over Leicester City at Vicarage Road.
Matej Vydra opened the scoring with a wonderful volley, before David Nugent pegged the Hornets back.
Vydra restored the Golden Boys’ advantage in the second half, before an incredible period of stoppage time that will go down in ‘Orns folklore.
Anthony Knockaert went down in the penalty box under the challenge of Marco Cassetti, and Leicester were given the chance to win the tie.
Manuel Almunia saved Knockaert’s spot-kick, as well as the follow-up, and a quick breakaway from the home side saw Troy Deeney seal the Semi-Final.
Gianfranco Zola chose to make three changes to the team that took to the field for the first leg just three days ago.
Troy Deeney returned after his one-game suspension to take the place of Alex Geijo in attack, and there were also recalls for Matthew Briggs and Cristian Battocchio, who replaced Daniel Pudil and Jonathan Hogg.
Nigel Pearson opted to keep his XI the same for the third consecutive game, after winning performances against Nottingham Forest and then the Golden Boys last time out.
Zola’s side started brightly, passing the ball with a crispness that was vital to their chances of overturning the Blues’ one-goal advantage.
But it was the visitors who had the first opening, as David Nugent slid the ball through to Anthony Knockaert, whose cross was blocked at the near-post with the ‘Orns’ back-line stretched.
The Hornets responded with a chance of their own, Chalobah feeding Deeney, who released Vydra, but the striker fired wide one-on-one with Kasper Schmeichel.
Deeney then stung the palms of the Dane, taking Lloyd Doyley’s ball on his chest and powering a low shot that the former Leeds stopper did well to divert away.
The ‘Orns did take the lead a few moments later, with a goal quite worthy of breaking Vydra’s scoring duck.
The Czech front-man made an early run which was spotted by Marco Cassetti, and the Italian’s measured chipped ball was volleyed home expertly by Watford’s leading marksman from a difficult angle.
It was a short-lived advantage though, as the Foxes equalised within just five minutes, Anthony Knockaert’s corner finding Nugent, whose downward header beat Manuel Almunia and restored Leicester’s advantage in the tie.
The Hornets’ were desperate not to let the setback affect them, and had the better of the play in the period after the Leicester goal.
Ikechi Anya’s cross was volleyed wide by Deeney, before Vydra turned Blues’ defender Michael Keane on the halfway line, his pass just too heavy for Deeney to capitalise.
Anya was again provider for Deeney with five minutes of the half remaining, playing a smart one-two with Nathaniel Chalobah, and dinking the ball into the six-yard box, but Watford’s number nine could only head over the bar.
Anya was proving the home side’s most effective outlet, having more joy up against Leicester full-back Jeff Schlupp than at the King Power Stadium on Thursday night.
Leicester had the first opportunity of the second period after Joel Ekstrand was adjudged to have fouled Chris Wood, but Knockaert’s curling free-kick was off target.
Battocchio went close minutes later, producing some nimble footwork on the edge of the area before forcing his shot just wide with Schmeichel beaten at his right post.
The game sprung into life after a slow period when Briggs beat Ritchie de Laet on the left, cutting the ball back to Vydra to tee up Almen Abdi, whose shot was deflected just past the post.
Fernando Forestieri was introduced on the hour, replacing Lloyd Doyley as Zola looked to bolster the attack.
The diminutive Argentine-Italian hadn’t touched the ball when Watford re-took the lead. Vydra fizzed the ball into Deeney, who flicked the ball back into the path of the Udinese loan man, who slotted home coolly for 2-1.
The momentum was with Watford after the goal and they pushed for the goal that would take them to Wembley. First Battocchio unleashed a cutting shot that Schmeichel held at the second attempt, before Forestieri sent a half-volley wide.
Deeney thought he had given the Hornets the lead in the tie, finishing after Vydra had played him in on goal, but his celebrations were cut short on the realisation that the linesman’s flag had, belatedly, gone up.
Both teams began to tire, and chances were at a premium going into the final minutes.
Ekstrand took a flailing Knockaert leg to the face and needed lengthy treatment, but was able to continue as the fourth official indicated four added minutes.
Leicester were given the chance to steal it at the death, as Cassetti fouled Knockaert in the penalty area leaving Michael Oliver no alternative but to award a penalty.
In keeping with the drama of this npower Championship season, the next few minutes were of sensational entertainment.
Knockaert was denied not once, but twice by Almunia and the Golden Boys broke at lightning speed.
Anya drove down the right, laid the ball to Forestieri whose cross to the far post found Hogg, and unselfishly for a player who has yet to score for the club, he nodded the ball down to Deeney who powered home.
There were joyous scenes at the final whistle, as fans and players alike celebrated on the pitch, looking forward to a Wembley final in 15 days' time.
HORNETS: Almunia (GK) (c); Doyley (Forestieri, 63), Ekstrand, Cassetti; Anya, Abdi, Chalobah, Battocchio (Hogg, 79), Briggs; Deeney, Vydra.
Subs not used: Bond (GK), Hall, Pudil, Eustace, Geijo.
Booked: Cassetti, Deeney.
FOXES: Schmeichel (GK); De Laet, Morgan (c), Keane, Schlupp; Knockaert, James, King, Dyer (Drinkwater, 66); Wood (Kane, 60), Nugent.
Subs not used: Logan (GK), Konchesky, Marshall, Vardy, Moore.
Attendance: 16,142 (2,206 Leicester fans)
Referee: Michael Oliver