Crystal Palace vs. Watford; The $100 Million Match
By Nick Webster
The richest game in the world produces the world’s wildest atmosphere.
Watford versus Crystal Palace is louder than a usual match, much louder. Perhaps even eleven on the loud dial as 90,000 fans have made the short journey to the home of English football, Wembley Stadium for the Championship play-off.
At stake, membership to the most exclusive and richest party on the planet, more commonly known as the English Premiership.
One side of this epic stadium is bathed in the yellow of Watford while the other is a kaleidoscope of purple and blue for Crystal Palace.
Within a matter of minutes the first stoppage. Hundreds of balloons on the pitch, the Eagle fans are making their presence felt while the Hornets return the favor with a couple of thunderous challenges which result in Joel Ekstrand receiving the first yellow card in the 10th minute for a late, nasty lunge on Aaron Wilbraham.
In the 28th minute the second yellow card of the match. Palace skipper, Mile Jedinak with a misplaced elbow into the chest of Almen Abdi but in terms of goalmouth action, neither side has tested goalkeepers, Julian Speroni or Mauel Almunia however the tackling of the respective back lines has been outstanding.
Half-time and honesty must prevail. There’s been very little quality. There’s too much at stake. No one wants to be the person that makes the mistake.
Is it nerves, lack of ambition?
This match is crying out for inspiration. Who wants to be a hero or perhaps there is a villain waiting for his moment?
Fifteen minutes into the 2nd half and it is beginning to get tense. Every moment is now potential danger. The players have felt it keenly since the start but now the fans are realizing that this is it, there are no second chances, it’s do or die.
The Palace supporters believe it’s their day but does their team?
The chances are coming thick and fast, Palace is on top but Almunia is the man, denying Wilbraham, then substitute, Stuart O’Keefe. Wembley is bubbling, waiting for the moment to explode.
Ten minutes left of the ninety. Fingernails have gone, watches are checked and re-checked and that nasty feeling in the pit of the stomach…it is growing.
The moment…no, still we wait. Almunia, again, denying Wilbraham. He should ‘ve scored. Palace have had the chances, if they lose, they’ll be gutted.
Every little thing is becoming magnified tenfold. Both managers prowl their technical areas. Ian Holloway animated, Gianfranco Zola, hands in pockets, cool but playing every pass, competing in every tackle.
93rd minute, corner Palace. Jedinak with the header, Almunia with the save. It looked harder than it was. The Spaniard has still been immense for the Hornets though.
Extra-time it is. Another 30 minutes. Time to reach for the anti-acids. The heartburn is cooking and I don’t support either team!
Now it’s the turn of the Palace keeper, Speroni, with an amazing stop to keep out Troy Deeney. He flung himself at the feet of the Hornets forward. Watford has begun extra-time rejuvenated they want it more.
Out of nowhere, Zaha, he’s been a box of tricks and he fools, Marco Cassetti in the Watford area. The entire stadium looks at Martin Atkinson, the match referee, does he have the bottle to point to the spot?
The moment has arrived and the ageless Kevin Phillips steps up to take the penalty. He’s found the back of the net 284 times in his never-ending career, is this 285?
Half of Wembley erupts, Almunia is finally beaten and Palace can touch, taste and smell the Premiership. The whistle blows for the end of the first period of extra-time, 15 minutes remain.
Watford push but they’re tired. They’re running out of ideas. It’s time to forget footballing principles and launch it. Almunia is a sweeper, everything is long.
There’s time for one more chance. Fernando Forestieri wriggles, he’s free, he curls it. It’s goal bound but on the line is Joel Ward, incredible clearance.
Still the Hornets press, two corners, there's no time left but Atkinson doesn't blow. Palace hold.
The Eagles have flown and now they land in the richest league. The have won the $100 million match.