Palace 2-1 Watford
Crystal Palace reached the FA Cup final for the first time in 26 years with victory over Watford at Wembley Stadium, where they will face Manchester United – just as the Eagles did in the Final of 1990.
Yannick Bolasie opened the scoring in the sixth minute with a carbon copy of Alan Pardew’s winner in the 1990 Semi-Final against Liverpool. Damien Delaney flicked on a near post Yohan Cabaye corner and Bolasie was at the back post to nod home from a yard out, past the floundering Costel Pantilimon. It was clear from the reactions of Pardew when the goal went in – immediately turning around and making a beeline for Keith Millen to high-five him – that the routine had been practice on the training field and Pardew confirmed that it was after the match.
Palace controlled the match until half-time and it was going to have to take a major effort for Watford to break out of their shell. Ten minutes into the second half, it looked like they might have done just that. Despite being under huge pressure from Scott Dann, Troy Deeney managed to climb and head home a corner straight above Wayne Hennessey’s head. In celebration, Deeney raced to the corner flag and punched it like it was a student – Watford fans were left wishing on social media after the game that he had put up as much as a fight against Mile Jedinak, who beat him in the air to every ball they contested:
Parity lasted for just six minutes, however, as Palace resumed control of the contest. After the match, Connor Wickham took blame for the Watford equaliser. He gave the ball away at the top of the field, Watford broke, won a free kick which deflected out for the corner that Deeney converted. While the big money signing from Sunderland was being a bit harsh on himself, he could feel a lot better as he expertly headed home a Pape Souare cross past the impossibly long Pantilimon.
Watford tried to push for a second equaliser but the best chance that they could muster a deflected shot from former Palace man, Adlene Guedioura. If anyone was going to score again, it was going to be Palace on the break – and with 12 minutes left, Zaha did almost that. James McArthur cleared a Watford corner and Zaha picked the ball up half way in his own half. He beat Allan Nyom with ease, as he has done so many time this season, and raced away. Two more Watford players were left for dead but he was too quick for the tiring Wickham to keep up. As a result he had to cut inside and this gave Nyom a chance to tackle back in last ditch fashion. His clearance fell to the late arriving Wickham but his shot was blocked and a second shot bounced tamely into the hands of Pantilimon.
The Eagles would hold on and book a return to Wembley on May 21st, giving the South London Club a chance at winning their first ever major trophy.
It was a special day. It always is at Wembley. Whether or not you think the Semi-Finals should be played at Wembley (I do not think they should be played there for those that care) once you walk onto Wembley Way, an unexplainable buzz kicks in and you want to win more than anything.
In the build up to kick off I thought that the match had already been won off the pitch. As a few dozen yellow flags languidly flapped at the opposite end of the stadium, tens of thousands of red ‘n’ blue flags were ferociously swung from side to side as thousands of red ‘n’ blue balloons came flying out from all over the Palace end.
The Watford fans then shocked me. For the opening few minutes they made the most noise that I have ever heard from them and they bounced around like maniacs. They appeared to be up for the battle and this is what makes Bolasie’s early open key to this match. It sucked the life out of the Watford fans and they were eliminated from the equation until Deeney pulled them level, only for Wickham to slap them back down to Earth just six minutes later.
At times this season, Palace fans as a collective have started to become a little bit complacent. It appears to me that many feel that we belong in the Premier League now and that the players now hold the responsibility to draw noise from their supporters with their skills on the pitch. In my experience as a Palace fan, we should know different. We should know that we have to earn everything and we should know that WE have a responsibility to draw the best out of our players. They tell us all of the time that we lift them when they are down – but I have not seen that as much as I would like this season.
Yesterday we were almost back at our very best and I hope that we can build this to into a crescendo that becomes the best atmosphere that we have ever produced on May 21st.
Doing it the Hard Way
With the exception of the Liverpool Semi Final in 1990, the run to that stage of the competition was extremely easy on paper:
Portsmouth – Home – 2nd Division
Huddersfield – Home – 3rd Division
Rochdale – Away – 4th Division
Cambridge – Away – 4th Division
Liverpool – Neutral – 1st Division
This run has been the complete opposite:
Southampton – Away – Premier League
Stoke – Home – Premier League
Tottenham – Away – Premier League
Reading – Away – Championship
Watford – Neutral – Premier League
Only one team has ever won the FA Cup and beaten top flight teams in every round – Manchester United in 1948 – which goes a long way to showing just how difficult it is to sustain such a run in this competition.
If we win the final in May, it must go down as one of the most difficult FA Cup runs for the winners in the history of the competition.
Connor Wickham Repays His Price Tag
Alan Pardew called his performance “defining” after the match. His work up the top of the field was tireless, he occupied the back four, he allowed Bolasie to impress in central areas by giving him room and when his big chance came he bagged the winner.
In terms of FA Cup prize money, it barely goes a fraction of the way to covering the fee that we paid for him to Sunderland, however, the ramifications from making an FA Cup final are huge. Approximately 500 million people will watch the showdown between Palace and United in May and make no mistakes about it, Steve Parish will know how to make the most out of that with his successful Marketing background. If we can find a way to win the game, against perhaps the biggest Club, commercially speaking, in the World – we might just find Crystal Palace fans popping up all over the world and just in time for when our shirts will be popping up in retail outlets all over the world.
Man of the Match: Mile Jedinak
I could have gone Pape Souare for his first assist since August and his all-around solid defensive display. Equally, Wilfried Zaha could have got the honours for causing Watford untold problems for the entire duration of the match – Ben Watson must still be wondering how Zaha nutmegged him when his legs were seemingly too close together for a ball to fit through.
However, it goes to Mile Jedinak because when he plays well in the centre of the park, we tick and tick we did in this one. Time and again he won possession in the middle of the park either through a tackle or an interception and this allows us to get Bolasie and Zaha in between the lines and cause them problems.
His battle with Deeney, if you are a Palace fan, is one for Palace folklore. Jedinak dominated the Watford front man for the second time in their careers at Wembley. Back in the 2013 Play-Off Final Deeney was playing with Matej Vydra and he would drop deep to try and flick the ball on for the pacey striker. In 2016 he is doing the same thing but with Ighalo ahead of him. Unfortunately for him, against Palace this means playing against one of the strongest aspects of Jedinak’s game – aerial duels. Having not watched the game back, I could be wrong, but I am certain that he beat Deeney in the air every single time that they challenged for the same ball and, quite simply, if you shut Deeney out in the area of the pitch then you shut out Watford completely. It took Premier League teams an age to figure that out this season, but now that they have, the Hornets slip down the league has been rapid.
With James McArthur returning from injury, our Aussie Skipper will face a battle to keep his place – but he has certainly stated his case to keep his place in recent weeks.
Watch the Whole Game Live
At the Final Whistle
In 2012, after losing to Cardiff on penalties in the League Cup, I settled on the idea that I would never see Crystal Palace in a major cup final (I wasn't yet indoctrinated as a Palace fan in 1990). I had actually become comfortable with the settlement as it would mean no more heartbreak. Relegations and promotions I have experienced and know how to deal with - but I refused to raise my hopes for this semi-final and let my heart be broken once again. I will never forget walking out of Old Trafford after the Ambrose's night and wildly celebrating drawing Cardiff out of the hat. We won the game in my head at that moment and with that I learned another vital lesson in supporting Crystal Palace Football Club - never expect to win, ever!
Up until the final whistle blew, I expected Watford to come back and win. Even though all of the evidence on the pitch was to the contrary, I was convinced that we would throw it away. As the full time whistle sounded I simply raised my hands to the sky and held them there for at least a minute as carnage ensued all around me. They then dropped and I held them against the back of my head as my disbelief continued.
I have now accpeted that I will have to be a nervous wreck until that day in May and either way, I will learn yet another new emotion as a Palace fan - to win or, heaven forbid, lose a Cup Final.
Please, please, please let this be our year.
Come on you Palace!