Villa plumb new depths at Bradford
It was an apt place for a new low. Bradford City's historic home has officially been renamed the Coral Windows Stadium but it will always be Valley Parade. Aston Villa entered an atmospheric, cavernous ground to the sound of The Skids' Into The Valley. Combining artist and lyric, they contrived to both slip up and plumb new depths.
Considering they finished 2012 with three defeats by an aggregate score of 15-0, that is saying something. Yet those were to Premier League sides. This was to Bradford City. The club record 8-0 defeat to Chelsea was unpleasant but a 3-1 loss to a side 60 places below them in the league ladder was embarrassing. "Disappointing," said Paul Lambert, in an understatement.
Now the fearless giant-killers are 90 minutes away from joining the Rochdale side of 1961-62 as the only fourth-flight teams to reach the League Cup final. They are exhilarating underdogs. The Bantams' capacity to rattle their supposed superiors with non-stop running and high-speed attacking continues.
And, as Villa wilted, it brought an inevitable taunt. "Are you Arsenal in disguise?" chorused the Yorkshire public, remembering the last illustrious visitors to depart Valley Parade humbled. Villa are not partly because, unlike the Gunners, they lost over the 90 minutes and, unlike them, they have a chance to overturn the deficit in the second leg.
It is imperative that they do. Lambert's youthful revolution may involve short-term pain to produce long-term gain but Villa's recent experiences are simply of hurting. Their wounds are rather too raw right now. There is promise in abundance but some of the kids aren't alright. Some were rather too callow for the occasion. In particular, the left half of a poor, porous defence floundered. The disappointing Nathan Baker was troubled, the dire Joe Bennett tormented.
"They have a got a young back four and we had to try and exploit that," Bradford manager Phil Parkinson said. They certainly did. The speedy, skilful Zavon Hines was Bennett's nemesis, the persistent, pacy Nahki Wells the architect of Villa's downfall. The Bermudan is Bradford's current hero and was the scorer of a predatory opener. Centre-backs Rory McArdle and Carl McHugh added headers from set-pieces and Villa's inability to defend them was a damning indictment of a wretched rearguard. "We never defended the way we should have," Lambert added. "At any level of football, you cannot defend corners like that."
Nevertheless, City could reflect on a huge team effort. "From the first minute to the last, the lads were tremendous," Parkinson added. Captain Gary Jones was a colossus, garnishing his contribution with two assists. Nathan Doyle was his energetic sidekick in midfield. The towering target man James Hanson hit the bar. And when Villa, among the game's aristocrats, broke through, they met their match in Matt Duke. "His performance was great," Parkinson added.
He made five outstanding saves to deny Christian Benteke, Gabriel Agbonlahor and Charles N'Zogbia. In a remarkably open game, Villa could have scored several goals. They also could have lost by more.
They trailed when Wells steered his shot past Shay Given after Hines' deflected effort fell invitingly for the sharp striker. Their lead was doubled when McArdle despatched a thumping effort past Given and then McHugh, with a bullet header, did likewise to defeat his hero and fellow Irishman. In between, Andreas Weimann's hooked effort - Darren Bent, guilty of a glaring miss, may not be the best finisher at the club any more - gave Villa such consolation as they could derive.
"When the chances come our way we have to be clinical," Lambert said. "It will be a different game at Villa Park." Although Parkinson could become just the second Bradford manager to take them to a major cup final, after the 1911 FA Cup winner Peter O'Rourke, he agreed. "It's important not to get carried away," he said.
Understandably, the supporters did. "We're going to Wem-ber-lee," they asserted. Play like this in the second leg and they just might. If Villa defend the same way again, they will. And yet the game, and Villa's season, may just come down to another of the insolent chants from the City faithful. "Who are you?" they asked, mocking the fancied team. It is a question Villa have to answer.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Matt Duke - A fantastic display of goalkeeping. The former Hull keeper had already excelled against Wigan and Arsenal but his Cup run, like Bradford's, gets better and better. As he is also City's goalkeeping coach, Duke must be both a fine teacher and pupil.
BRADFORD VERDICT: Magnificent. It is startling to think that Bradford lost 2-0 to Barnet, threatened with relegation from the Football League, on Saturday. On the evidence of their last two Capital One Cup ties, several of their players could operate at higher levels. If Hines had performed this well for West Ham and Burnley, he might still be in the top two divisions. Wells, meanwhile, will surely be in the Championship next season.
ASTON VILLA VERDICT: They actually started well before Wells' goal. What followed, however, was worrying. Left-back has been a problem position all season and Bennett's display illustrated why Lambert has to buy. But while the manager likes to make attacking substitutions, it must be a concern that he struggles to shore his sides up while the fragility of his side provides more evidence for the charge that they lack character. After this setback, Saturday's relegation six-pointer against Southampton is still more significant.