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Phillips ends hoodoo in spellbinding finish

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PALACE boss Ian Holloway could not hide his delight after the Eagles secured a Premier League place following Monday's 1-0 win over Watford in the Championship play-off final.

Despite losing midfielder Kagisho Dikgacoi early on to injury, the manager hailed veteran forward Kevin Phillips for ending his play-off hoodoo with the winning penalty in extra-time.

"We had a tough few weeks before we got into the play-offs, but this group have been fantastic," said Holloway.

"I'm so proud of them and so proud of the club, we're in the Premier League – God help us.

"It's absolutely massive. We've got plans to change the ground, it's getting a bit old in places, so I'm just delighted for everybody connected with the club.

"Obviously, with the injury to KG, that really did rock my boat because there was such a long time to go.

"But in the end, what a wonderful story it is. Kevin Phillips hadn't won a play-off final but he has now. He's never been on the winning side.

"Wilfried got the penalty, and it was a penalty, which was a relief because you don't want the referee making a bad decision and ruining a game like that.

"I'm delighted for everybody connected with the club."

Palace were much the better side in the second half and were denied time and time again by Hornets goalkeeper Manuel Almunia, while Holloway also paid tribute to Zaha on his final game for the club.

"Games like that are won and lost on moments of genius and I think Wilfried's little run was almost unplayable," said the boss.

"I knew that it could go either way, I knew we had to be at our best and I hoped the lads would be.

"It looked like we'd missed a few too many chances, to be honest. Their goalkeeper made some brilliant saves but I was just really pleased that the boys settled so well.

"It's horrible for Watford, I had it last year (with Blackpool), but it's all about taking it in the right way and being dignified, which they were.

"I'm going to scratch my head and wonder how we're going to stay in the Premier League."

On a wonderful day for the boys in red and blue in front of more than 30,000 Palace fans, the big moment came in the 104th minute when Zaha was brought down inside the box by Marco Cassetti, leaving veteran forward Phillips to smash into the top left corner.

Aaron Wilbraham, who began the game on his own in attack, had Palace's first glimpse of goal after eight minutes when Jonny Williams fed the ball into him on the edge of the box, but his shot was blocked.

Zaha picked up the loose ball and beat a couple of Watford players on the right but the ball just went out at the byeline as he looked to cut it back.

The Hornets' Joel Ekstrand was the first player to enter referee Martin Atkinson's notebook soon after for a lunge on Wilbraham, while Mile Jedinak did well to cut out a low cross at the other end from Almen Abdi.

However, Palace suffered an early blow after just 16 minutes when Dikgacoi was forced to go off with an injury. The South African fell to the floor with no one around him, believed to be a calf problem, before hobbling off to be replaced by Stuart O'Keefe.

Zaha did well to run rings around the Watford defence again down the right before cutting the ball back to Owen Garvan, but the midfielder's shot was blocked inside the box.

Jedinak received a booking just before the half-hour mark for blocking off Abdi, but the Hornets went close to opening the scoring moments later when Matej Vydra received the ball on the edge of the box in a bit of space, and just as he was about to pull the trigger, Damien Delaney put in a superb tackle.

Ikechi Anya was causing a few problems for Palace down the right with his pace, and the winger carved out Watford's first shot of the game after 43 minutes but it went way over Julian Speroni's crossbar.

The Hornets, who brought on Alex Geijo for the injured Vydra at the break, conjured up the first effort of the second period when Nathaniel Chalobah had a go from long range but the ball flew well wide.

Wilbraham also had a great chance to draw first blood when his shot on the turn was blocked from close range from Delaney's knock-down.

And then the former MK Dons and Norwich City man found himself bearing down on goal on the right, but as he got to the danger area he decided to hold the ball up before shooting tamely at Almunia.

Holloway brought on Phillips for Williams in a bid to support Wilbraham up front, and they should have taken the lead when the latter was denied by Almunia again, this time from three yards out following a corner.

Danny Gabbidon also found himself completely unmarked at the back post from the resulting set-play but his first touch was far too heavy and Watford cleared their lines.

Zaha continued to pose big problems down the right and did well to deliver a couple of crosses into the box just after the midway point of the second half, but no one was on hand to finish.

With ten minutes remaining, the Eagles had three more chances in quick succession to score first. The best came when Wilbraham found himself in space in front of goal but again Almunia saved Watford by sticking out a leg to deny the forward.

It was agonising for the Palace fans to watch as they had witnessed their team dominate the majority of the second period.

Zaha was also thwarted on the left side of the box by a Watford defender in the second of three added-on minutes, and from the corner, Jedinak rose above his marker to power a header towards goal, but Almunia held on with a flying save.

So, to extra-time, and it was a big moment for Speroni early on when Deeney got round the back of Ward inside the box but the custodian stuck out a hand to superbly palm the ball away from further danger.

But in the final minute of the first half of extra-time, Palace took the lead from the penalty spot after Zaha was tripped on the left side of the penalty area by Cassetti, leaving Phillips to emphatically send the ball into the top left corner to put one foot in the Premier League.

Holloway's men stood firm at the back, and they could have added a second with a number of counter-attacks but unfortunately to no avail.

However, despite a late wave of Watford attacks and corners, they were greeted at the final whistle by wild celebrations before lifting the play-off trophy in front of an ecstatic crowd of cheering Palace fans.

Premier League football is back at Selhurst Park.


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