By Tony Leighton
Leicester City's in the end unlikely, and highly dramatic, qualification for the npower Championship Play-Offs has hugely revitalised the players, says manager Nigel Pearson, ahead of their two-leg semi-final against Watford.
Automatic promotion seemed theirs for the taking three months ago, but the Foxes will undoubtedly head into the Play-Offs as underdogs after scraping into sixth place on an enthralling final day of the regular season.
At the start of February, after 29 games, Pearson's team were second in the table and three points clear of the Play-Off places. But in their next 16 outings they won only twice and collected just 12 points from a possible 48.
That left their Play-Off chances looking slim to none as they went into their last match, away to near-neighbours and promotion rivals Nottingham Forest, in eighth place and needing to beat seventh in the table Forest while hoping that sixth-placed Bolton Wanderers would fail to beat lowly Blackpool at home.
Amazingly, or perhaps not in what has been an amazing season in a Championship described variously as "crazy" and "bonkers," Leicester beat Forest 3-2 with a stoppage time winner while Bolton drew 2-2.
As Pearson reflected on those dramatic events while looking ahead to Thursday's semi-final first leg at Leicester's King Power Stadium, the Foxes boss said: "I was really pleased with how the players approached the game at Forest.
"They showed a lot of courage and a lot of ability. It could have gone either way, but that was the case in all of the [Championship's last day] games - the promotion as well as the relegation battles. It was ebb and flow.
"We left it very late but we played very positively. We had to cope with going behind early in the game, but we coped with the situation very well. And at the end you could see how much it meant to the players.
"Hopefully it will have a positive influence on the group. They've experienced playing under pressure over the last few weeks, there's no doubt about that, and as a player you drawn on those experiences.
"The mood has stayed good, though - even when we had that difficult run the players remained positive. There hasn't been a smell of fear or anything like that amongst them. Now we know that we have a tough tie coming up, but if you ask the players they will be backing themselves massively."
Leicester do indeed have a tough tie coming up, Watford having finished three places and nine points above them and also having beaten them twice in the league - completing the double with a 2-1 victory at the King Power Stadium in the Foxes' penultimate game of the Championship season.
Will those two defeats by the Hornets have any bearing on the outcome of the Play-Offs meetings? "We go into these games now and the perspective will be different," said Pearson, "because we go in there on the back of a positive result.
"And because it's over two legs it's a different scenario anyway. It's two sides who play their own style of football and it will make for a good encounter.
"Watford are a good team who have a style of play they stick to, and they've had a very good season. [Manager] Gianfranco Zola has done a good job and we will have to be at our best to go through - but so will they."
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