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We are Premier League!

May 27 2013

Kevin Phillips scores the winning penalty

Kevin Phillips scores the winning penalty

Kevin Phillips was the hero as Crystal Palace won their place in the Premier League after a 1-0 victory over Watford.

The 39-year-old held his nerve when his side needed him most to convert a golden penalty in extra time of the Championship play-off final at Wembley.

The evergreen forward finally ended his hoodoo after three final defeats for different sides and it was against the club where he began his career.

Wilfried Zaha gave Palace the perfect leaving present before joining up with Manchester United in the summer by winning the vital spot kick.

Ian Holloway had the bitter taste of defeat against West Ham in last year’s final with Blackpool. But he made amends by out-foxing opposite number Gianfranco Zola and organising and inspiring his troops to brilliant effect.

The setting was perfect with Wembley packed to the rafters as the players emerged onto the hallowed turf in basking sunshine with the pitch covered in red and blue balloons – a Palace tradition since the 1990 FA Cup run.

Watford went into the tie as strong favourites for what is the richest single fixture in global sport. With so much at stake, both sides were understandably nervous and it was reflected on the pitch where few opportunities were carved out in the first half.

But with 16 minutes gone, Palace were dealt a setback when Kagisho Dikgacoi limped off injured with a calf problem. The midfielder was replaced by Stuart O’Keefe, whose game time had amounted to just nine matches over the season. However, the former Southend United man got stuck in right away with a couple of firm tackles.

A brilliant last-ditch block just inside the penalty area by centre half Damien Delaney on Watford striker and division’s Player of the Year Matej Vedra signalled Palace’s intent in the opening stages.

Vydra hurt his foot in the legitimate challenge and limped on but had to be substituted at half-time.

The game opened up around the hour mark when Daniel Pudil tried his luck in claiming a penalty after a fair challenge in the box by Danny Gabbidon.

Palace broke up field and suddenly front man Aaron Wilbraham – in the side for injured leading scorer Glenn Murray – was through on goal. He checked back, rather than take an early shot and Joel Ekstrand was able recover and block. The chance seemed to lift the Eagles who forced Manuel Almunia into the first save of the game in the 65th minute.

Zaha was sent through down the left and he teed up O’Keefe who took a touch into the box but his drive was pushed out by the keeper.

Watford didn’t deal with the resulting corner, and as the ball landed at Wilbraham’s feet six yards from goal, again Almunia was there to keep it out.

Then Gabbidon was left holding his head in his hands after he failed to convert a chance at the far post with the goal gaping after Almunia missed another well-flighted corner kick.

Palace piled on the pressure as Garvan scooped a shot into Almunia’s arms before Wilbraham’s strike from 12 yards was saved by the goalie’s legs.

Watford’s best reply was a Troy Deeney volley that ballooned over the bar. Down the opposite end, Mile Jedinak’s header from Andre Moritz’s corner was well held by Almunia as the 90 minutes ended.

With the number of chances stacked up, Palace should have put them away to avoid the heart-fluttering extra time. And two minutes into the first period, the game could have been lost. Watford’s Deeney was left with just Speroni to beat, but the stopper came to Palace’s rescue by bravely clawing the ball away from under his toes.

The breakthrough arrived in the dying seconds of the extra time’s first half. Watford defender Marco Cassetti was outwitted by Zaha’s skill and the laboured Italian took him down in the box for a clear-cut penalty.

The 20-year-old had tormented Watford with his dribbling and directness all afternoon and he got his reward.

It left sharp-shooter Phillips, who was on as a substitute, to show the ultimate coolness and blast the kick high into the top left corner.

More drama was to follow as Joel Ward had to be alert to head Fernando Forestieri’s shot off the goal line in stoppage time. But it was too little, too late.

Watford, who finished the season in third, just seemed overawed by the occasion as their main stars failed to perform on this ‘winner takes all’ occasion.

The Eagles claimed a famous victory thanks in part to the exuberance of youth in Zaha and the calmness of experience in Phillips, a player almost twice his age.

With all the furore over the number of loan players Watford borrowed from sister clubs in Italy and Spain, it was ironic that it was the two Palace loanees that settled matters.

The Palace fans were magnificent throughout the Wembley spectacle and they and the players celebrated the wonderful achievement of elevation to the Premier League at the final whistle to the booming sound of Glad All Over.

Partying went on into the night as it sunk in that Palace are back in the Premier League for the first time since 2005.

PALACE: Shots on target 11, Shots off 2, Offsides 2, Corners 6, Fouls 12, Possession 52%, Yellows 4.

WATFORD: Shots on target 9, Shots off 6, Offsides 1, Corners 8, Fouls 13, Possession 48%, Yellows 3.

Attendance: 82,025. Referee: Martin Atkinson.

Palace: Speroni, Ward, Gabbidon, Delaney, Moxey, Zaha, Jedinak, Garvan (Moritz 84), Dikgacoi (O'Keefe 18), Williams (Phillips 66), Wilbraham.

Subs: Price, Richards, Bolasie, Ramage.

Watford: Almunia, Doyley, Ekstrand, Cassetti, Anya (Forestieri 86), Chalobah (Battocchio 74), Hogg, Pudil, Abdi, Deeney, Vydra (Geijo 46).

Subs: Bond, Hall, Yeates, Briggs.

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2012/13 squad stats

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