Leicester City and Cardiff headed into the second leg of their play-off knowing that victory would send them onto a date with Blackpool at Wembley for the richest game in football.
With Cardiff holding the advantage after a 1-0 win over the Foxes at the Walkers Stadium on Sunday, the scene was set for the most critical game of both club’s seasons.
The home team started well, taking the initiative and looking for a goal which would extend their slim lead. Top scorer Peter Whittingham and livewire Jay Bothroyd both looked threatening in the opening exchanges and kept the City defence on their toes in the opening 15 minutes. Whittingham missing the first clear cut chance of the game when he fired wide after he found himself through on goal. Leicester meanwhile looked rather isolated in attack with the returning partnership of Matty Fryatt and Steve Howard failing to stamp their authority on the game.
The deadline was broken after 20 minutes when Jay Bothroyd flicked on a long ball and it fell at the feet of Michael Chopra, who calmly slotted the ball past a helpless Chris Weale in the Leicester goal for the opening goal of the game and handing Cardiff a formidable two goal lead. The Welsh club had the game by the throat and looked to be in a commanding position. This blow only served to galvanise the visitors as they began to venture forward with more purpose, knowing they now had an uphill challenge to overcome if they wished to qualify. Steve Howards flick-on meant Fryatt found himself with space inside the Cardiff area and within three minutes of the restart Leicester were level on the night as Fryatt struck a powerful shot which squirmed through David Marshall’s body, the Bluebirds ‘keeper helpless to prevent the ball crossing the line.
This suprising equaliser certainly buoyed the Foxes and the dominant Steve Howard won another flick-on in the air from a Chris Weale goal kick which was headed goal-wards inadvertently by Cardiff defender Mark Hudson. The unfortunate centre back’s looping header sent the ball over the advancing Marshall into his own net, giving Leicester a 2-1 lead on the night, and levelling the match on aggregate. Leicester continued to press in the later stages of the first half as the Cardiff rearguard failed to deal with the threat posed by Howard in the air, and Bluebirds boss Dave Jones would have been relieved to hear the half time whistle blow whilst his side were still level in the tie.
After the interval it was Leicester who came out stronger, and with 49minutes on the clock Welshman Andy King headed home after Paul Gallagher delivered the ball following a half cleared corner kick. Leicester now led 3-1 on the night and had not only pegged back the original one goal deficit but had also moved clear of their opponents on aggregate. Cardiff, realising they now needed to push forward revived their attacking presence and threatened to get the vital goal that would level the scores. Young captain Jack Hobbs looked particularly impressive as Leicester attempted to rebuff the attempts of the home side, urged on by thousands of very vocal Welsh fans.
The pressure from Cardiff paid off when Alex Bruce brought down Michael Chopra with a clumsy challenge inside the Leicester area. Cardiff’s top scorer Peter Whittingham stepped up to slot home the penalty and level the aggregate score at 3-3. The Bluebirds seized their opportunity and looked to press home their momentum, twice rattling the woodwork via Bothroyd and dead ball specialist Whittingham in the closing stages. Leicester had sporadic attacks as the end of normal time approached, but only one of real note when Steve Howard volleyed goalwards and forced Marshall into a great save to deny the Foxes a late winner. The game ended all square at 3-3 overall and moved into extra time.
The first real action of extra time came when veteran defender Noberto Solano conceded a freekick in a promising attacking position. The Peruvian saw the subsequent delivery strike his elbow inside the Leicester penalty area, but referee Howard Webb waved away the appeals for a second penalty. Cardiff looked the better side as extra time progressed, posing much more of an attacking threat than their midlands rivals who were walking a yellow card tightrope as the fatigue of such a frantic game began to set in. Despite giving their all neither side could find a winner in the allotted period of extra time, and thus, the game was destined to be settled in the cruellest of fashions, from 12 yards.
Each side converted their first three penalties in front of the home supporters, keeping their composure as the tie built to what would be an emphatic climax. As the pressure built, second half substitute Yann Kermorgant stepped up for Leicester to take their 4th penalty of the shootout. The Frenchman attempted to dink the ball straight down the middle of the goal and his tame effort which lacked power and precision was palmed away by the impressive Marshall. Mark Kennedy stepped up for the home side and calmly slotted his effort past the despairing Chris Weale in the Leicester goal. Cardiff now led 4-3 and the pressure of the imperative 5th Leicester spot kick fell to on loan striker Martyn Waghorn, who had been impressive since his arrival at the Walkers Stadium from parent club Sunderland on a season long deal. The 20 year old forward, recently crowned Young Player of The Year at Leicester could not beat Marshall in the Cardiff goal and saw his effort turned away, The Cardiff City Stadium erupted and the home side celebrated what will no doubt become a historic play-off victory.
This was a game to rival the previous night’s exploits at the City Ground which saw Ian Holloway’s Blackpool side leave the midlands with the spoils over Nottingham Forest. Both sets of fans and any neutrals were treated to a thoroughly entertaining game as the momentum swung back and forth during the 120 minutes that were played. Cardiff proved the victors after holding their nerve at the critical moment and will progress to meet the Tangerines in a play-off final guaranteeing one side a place in the top tier of English football. Neither side have made a foray into the Premier League since it adopted its current form and this will only serve to galvanise the side that is victorious on May 22nd on the historic Wembley turf.
Whichever side emerges as the winner of this process, they and their fans will have experienced a campaign which has not only been a fantastic advert for The Championship as a league, but has demonstrated just how exciting the play-offs can be.