A 69th minute diving header and a second strike on the 88th minute into the roof of the net by Wilfried Zaha secured Crystal Palace’s place in the Championship play-off final at the New Wembley stadium against Watford on Monday May 27.
Both teams seemed deadlocked until half way through the second half when the patient and disciplined performance by the Eagles broke down Gus Poyet’s Brighton team at home in their new Amex stadium on the south coast.
Zaha was embraced by his manager Ian Holloway after Mark Clattenburg blew the final whistle. This will be Holloway’s third play-off final in four years as a manager.
Most commentators identified the controlling midfield play and influence of Palace’s player of the season Mile Jedinak as being the key to victory before 29,518 spectators.
The 28-year old Australian player told the Crystal Palace FC website “It’s been a really tough season, I can say that safely. A rollercoaster, but one that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed,” after accepting his club award.
The match statistics demonstrate that Brighton and Palace were the equal of each other for most of the two legs. Palace was 2% ahead on possession, had one more attempt on target, and three more corners. The difference was a costly lapse in concentration by Brighton’s defence and the clinical finishing of Zaha.
The second goal became more likely as Palace were able to take advantage of Brighton on the counter-attack as they threw everything into attack to try and get an equalizer for extra time.
Ian Holloway said they were up against a fantastic team and crowd: “I am so proud of my team. They were completely awesome. They were brave and they got rewarded again, by making some good saves, defending properly and nobody making a mistake.”
Holloway said Wilfried Zaha “will be a world class player,” and it was obvious how much Palace means to him.
Crystal Palace chairman Steve Parish told BBC Five Live after the game he was “Delightfully happy. The whole team was fantastic, Ian set up the team brilliantly, but Wilfried was exceptional. One more game to the promised land.” He acknowledged the “special bond between Zaha and the Palace supporters.”
“We are not there yet,” he said. “We don’t want to get carried away. We need to keep our feet on the ground before thinking about the Premier league. I am sure there will be a lot of twists and turns in the final. I’m going to relax over the next two weeks and let Ian take the strain.”
Zaha was signed to Manchester United for £15 million in January by the retiring Sir Alex Ferguson, but he loaned the striker back to Palace. Zaha’s game at Wembley will be his last for Palace before returning to Old Trafford in the summer.
Crystal Palace have been allocated 33,000 tickets in the West Stand of the new Wembley stadium and such is their huge support across South London and elsewhere they anticipate selling out. For more details visit the club website where they explain that ticket sales will be online 24 hours a day.
East London Lines went to Patrick’s Bar in Crystal Palace to talk to supporters about what getting through to the final means to them. They said they were excited and proud, but were taking it one step at a time.
Reporting by Dea Cisar & Sean Mullervy