David Nugent’s header meant it was advantage Leicester City in their npower Championship Play-Off Semi-Final against Watford after his late goal sent them on their way to a fantastic 1-0 victory on Thursday night.
City's top scorer got a crucial flick on Anthony Knockaert’s free-kick in the 81st minute to direct the ball into the top corner and give Nigel Pearson’s Foxes a slender lead going into the second leg at Vicarage Road on Sunday, where the winners will earn a place at Wembley.
Capitalising on the cauldron of noise created by King Power Stadium's biggest attendance of the season, City came flying out of the blocks in a first half that saw chances for both sides - Nugent and Knockaert going close for City, while Kasper Schmeichel produced an excellent stop to deny Ikechi Anya a goal on the counter.
In an enthralling second half both sides gave it their all in an effort to take the lead, but resolute defending at either end saw it remain all-square until Nugent’s winner, which delighted the 30,00-strong crowd.
It was an unchanged side for The Foxes heading into the fixture, with Jeff Schlupp holding onto the left back slot, and a front two of Nugent and Chris Wood leading City’s attack in a 4-4-2 formation.
Saturday’s match-winner against Forest, Knockaert, started on the opposite flank to Lloyd Dyer in midfield, while Paul Konchesky returned to the bench after recovering from a small hernia operation.
Watford boss Gianfranco Zola made three changes to his side for the visit to Leicester, with former Arsenal man Manuel Almunia returning for Jonathan Bond in goal as part of a 3-5-2 formation.
Championship Player of the Season Matej Vydra came in for the suspended Troy Deeney, while his strike partner Alex Geijo took Fernando Forestieri’s place as the Argentine dropped to the bench.
The atmosphere inside King Power Stadium was absolutely electric, and with the roar of the crowd behind them, The Foxes came flying out of the traps – almost taking a third minute lead when Nugent back-heeled Dyer’s cutback goal wards, only to see Almunia make the save.
Rattled, Watford struggled to keep a lid on City’s attacks, resulting in a fifth minute booking for Anya, who went in late on Schlupp in full flow.
Dominant, confident, composed – it was a sensational start from City, who were pressuring their opponents into relinquishing possession time after time, and had another chance when Ritchie De Laet’s header from Matty James’ corner was saved by Almunia.
However, the good work was almost undone on 18 minutes as a slip from Schlupp allowed Anya a run at goal. The wing-back fired a powerful effort low at goal, but Schmeichel made a sublime save, and was again on hand to deny Watford’s Player of the Season, Almen Abdi a goal from the follow-up.
The chance seemed to temporarily take the wind out of City’s sails, but just before the half hour-mark, Dyer intercepted a pass to break down the left, cutting an inviting ball back for Nugent. Unfortunately the striker dragged his effort wide on his right foot to let Watford off the hook.
Meanwhile the pacey Anya was causing problems down the right, and Schlupp went into the book for a foul on the edge of the box, from which the wide man almost found the net but for a block from the excellent Andy King.
Nathaniel Chalobah, the scorer of a spectacular 35-yarder at the same end two weeks ago, tried his luck for Watford, but found Schmeichel equal to the challenge as the visitors looked to sting City on the counter.
Leicester responded with a break of their own though, and when Knockaert beat Ekstand on the touchline, he found himself with a sight of goal only to see his shot deflected wide.
Centre half Michael Keane then followed up with a right-footed volley at the far post, however it was too difficult a chance and the ball flashed a yard or so wide to send the sides in all square at the break, but not before Knockaert was booked for a foul on Anya.
Both teams emerged unchanged for the second 45 minutes, and there was to be no let up in the pace from City, who still poured forward at every opportunity without being able to make that all important breakthrough.
Schlupp tried though – carving himself an opening on the left after a give-and-go with Wood, but he couldn’t keep the finish down.
Watford were still a threat however, and after Keane was booked for a foul on Geijo on 56 minutes, Abdi curled the free kick narrowly over the bar.
There was a further let off for City a moment later, when Vydra, without a goal in 12 games, completely scuffed his shot when one-on-one with Schmeichel, allowing the Dane to save comfortably.
Pearson then introduced Harry Kane for Wood in the 63rd minute, with the on-loan Spurs man having scored against the Hornets in the league game at King Power Stadium in April.
With decisions from referee Neil Swarbrick not going in City’s favour, the pressure from Watford was all of a sudden beginning to mount, and in the 70th minute Vydra found space on the left to drill an effort at goal, only for Schmeichel to tip it away at full stretch.
Geijo then headed over from Anya’s cross at the far post when he really should have scored, but it remained all square going into the closing stages.
That was all to change though in the 81st minute when it became advantage Leicester, as Nugent rose highest to flick Knockaert’s free kick from deep into the top corner and send King Power Stadium wild with celebration.
In all honesty it could have been two a moment later when Kane picked out Knockaert, only to see Almunia save the Frenchman’s header.
Buoyed by Nugent’s strike, City burst into life after a difficult spell and were able to carve the Watford defence open seemingly at will.
However the Hornets’ back line was able to hold off The Foxes through four minutes of stoppage time, but Leicester will be delighted to be taking a lead into the second leg at Vicarage Road on Sunday.
City (4-4-2): Schmeichel, De Laet, Morgan (c), King, Dyer, Keane, James, Schlupp, Knockaert (Drinkwater 90), Nugent, Wood (Kane 63)
Unused subs: Konchesky, Marshall, Vardy, Logan, Moore
Goal: Nugent 81
Watford (3-5-2): Almunia (c), Hogg, Doyley (Hall 86), Pudil (Briggs 73), Vydra (Forestieri 90), Anya, Abdi, Cassetti, Geijo, Chalobah, Ekstrand
Unused subs: Eustace, Yeates, Briggs, Bond, Battocchio
Referee: Neil Swarbrick (Lancashire)