BRADFORD CITY’S dreams of making history by becoming the first fourth-tier side to reach a League Cup final at Wembley remain very much alive after a 3-1 win and another truly magical Valley Parade night.
Goals from Nahki Wells and central defensive duo Rory McArdle and Carl McHugh have left five-time winners Villa with plenty to do to deny inspirational City a place in the showpiece on February 24 – as another chapter in one of the most compelling cup runs in English football was added.
City boss Phil Parkinson’s pre-match wish was for his side to still be in contention in the two-legged tie when the two sides reconvene at Villa Park on January 22 and his band of gallant heroes duly delivered – with a bit more besides.
Every single one of the City side stepped up to the plate on a thrilling evening, but special credit was reserved for goalkeeper Matt Duke, who produced a string of outstanding saves in a man-of-the-match showing to thwart Villa, seemingly on a one-man crusade to book Parkinson’s men a place in the final.
It was a truly frenetic and intoxicating 90 minutes, right from the first whistle, with Villa, fielding a fluid 4-3-3 system, quickly showing their danger with the recalled Charles N’Zogbia seeing a fierce shot beaten away by Duke before Wells got the better of Nathan Baker only to see his lofted cross held by Shay Given, who had a trial at Bradford at the age of 15.
The Midlanders then wasted two almost carbon-copy opportunities to take the lead with Christian Benteke twice heading over from precision corners, with the second miss definitely categorised as a sitter.
Soon after, the powerhouse striker was denied by Duke after a clever pass from Bradford-born Delph before City, out of nowhere, manufactured a breakthrough as another golden moment in their glorious cup odyssey arrived on 19 minutes.
Wells, a two-goal hero in the third-round win over Burton, added to his burgeoning reputation by coolly firing home from 10 yards out after being the beneficiary of a fortuitous ricochet.
A City corner was only half-cleared to Zavon Hines, whose ambitious long-ranger spun wickedly off Villa captain Ciaran Clark to the unmarked Bermudan, who steered home his 16th goal of a productive campaign while the visitors appealed in vain for an offside flag.
It was an emotional moment for Wells, who raced away after his goal before lifting up his shirt to reveal a message commemorating his friend Tumaini Steede, who passed away last July.
Duke then denied N’Zogbia before Benteke’s painful night continued when his shot was beaten away before a moment of magic almost conjured up a second on 34 minutes.
Hines, who looked like he had the beating of left-back Joe Bennett at every opportunity, waltzed past the harassed former Middlesbrough defender with his effort blocked at the near post by Given.
Just two minutes later, City went desperately close again with a well-taken outswinger from Gary Jones being met with the firmest of headers from James Hanson, whose goal-bound effort was blocked by one-time Bantams academy player Delph.
With the claret-and-amber hordes ready to salute their heroes with a thunderous interval reception, Duke was called into action again and reserved his best stop of a busy first period when he showed terrific reactions to turn away Agbonlahor’s rasping strike moments before the interval after Benteke give the City defence the slip.
Villa came out of the traps with intent after the restart, with three quick-fire chances falling their way, although a combination of poor finishing and inspired goalkeeping – rapidly becoming the theme of the night – preserved the hosts’ lead.
Shocking control from Clark let him down after he was left unmarked following Barry Bannan’s corner before Benteke’s point-blank header produced another top-drawer save from Duke, who was then able to deny Gabriel Agbonlahor almost straightaway as the chances started to stack up for the visitors. While City traded it out punch for punch on the attacking front in the first period, much of the second 45 minutes was more an exercise in digging in and showing outstanding discipline, heart and organisation as they did so masterfully against Arsenal and Wigan in the previous two rounds.
That said, they were helped by the fact that Villa were doing a passable impersonation of the Gunners in the finishing stakes with out-of-favour striker Darren Bent blazing over an opportunity seven minutes after coming on.
Bent blotted his copybook further when he headed over from just a few yards out after Duke parried N’Zogbia’s low strike – receiving some attention for his pains – with the impression that it would not be Villa’s night impossible to avoid.
The cries of “Que Sera Sera, we’re going to Wembley” soon began to emanate from the Kop and 13 minutes from time, a trip there seemed distinctly on the immediate horizon .
Villa switched off for a split-second following Jones’s corner, with McArdle stealing in to head home leading to ecstatic scenes. Amazingly, City were within inches of a third moments later when Hanson’s header clipped the crossbar following substitute Blair Turgott’s cross.
Soon after, Villa secured themselves a much-needed lifeline when Andreas Weimann dinked the ball home after latching onto Benteke’s knockdown to make the trip home for the 4,313 visiting fans contingent seemingly a touch more palatable.
But they reckoned without another late twist in City’s marvellous cup adventure with McHugh powering home a superb header from another Jones corner two minutes from time to seal yet another unbelievable night.
Bradford City: Duke; Darby, McArdle, McHugh, Good; Hines (Turgott 66), G Jones, Doyle, Atkinson; Hanson, Wells. Unused substitutes: McLaughlin, Ravenhill, Reid, R Jones, Hannah, Connell.
Aston Villa: Given; Lowton, Baker, Clark, Bennett; Delph, Bannan, N’Zogbia; Agbonlahor (Bent 57 (Burke 85) ); Benteke, Weimann. Unused substitutes: Guzan, Ireland, Stevens, Lichaj, Carruthers.
Referee: H Webb (Rotherham).