Bradford City are looking to make history tonight by becoming the first team from the fourth tier of English football to make the League Cup final since Rochdale in 1962. With a two-goal advantage from the first leg of their Capital One Cup semi-final against Premier League strugglers Aston Villa, The Bantams are also just 90 minutes away from being the first fourth tier team ever to play a League Cup final at Wembley.
The signs point to an even contest tonight at Villa Park. Bookmakers Ladbrokes for example price Bradford as slight favourites given their two-goal advantage, but still consider Paul Lambert’s side an even shout to qualify on the night, despite recent poor form.
Bradford’s incredible cup run has stunned English football this season – but such are the whims and charms of football that this fairytale adventure may never have happened for Phil Parkinson’s side.
The run could have ended before it even started on August 11th 2012 when Bradford met Notts County away in the first round, coming through in extra time thanks to James Hanson’s 95th minute strike. Had Yoann Arquin not somehow hit the bar from three yards out in injury time, we would not be discussing the possibility of Bradford City at Wembley.
Since then however Phil Parkinson’s side have brought a touch of magic to this increasingly exciting cup competition, and after knocking out Watford, Burton Albion and then Wigan Athletic and Arsenal on penalties, a 3-1 win over Villa in the first leg gives Bradford a real chance of making history. Here are 5 key factors that will help determine what should be an enthralling contest:
1) Home Advantage
A 3-1 lead could ordinarily be seen as good enough to push Bradford through in normal circumstances, especially given their fearless, adventurous style of play in the first leg. That however was achieved in front of home fans who have packed Valley Parade to the rafters, bringing a raucous atmosphere for the likes of Arsenal and Villa to contend with.
Travelling to the home of a big Premier League club like Aston Villa is a daunting task for any League Two side though, even with a two-goal advantage. Will the Villa Park crowd inspire their team to victory?
In Bradford’s favour, Villa have a woeful home record this season with only 2 league wins at home, 4 draws and 5 defeats. Only QPR have less home wins. And with tickets still available for the game, what atmosphere will the home fans provide and how long before frustration kicks in?
2) Do Bradford stick or twist?
One of the most enchanting elements of Bradford’s cup run to this point has been Phil Parkinson’s fearless approach to playing bigger opposition. The former Colchester United and Charlton Athletic manager has not been afraid to have a go at teams like Arsenal, often pinning Arsene Wenger’s side back during that game with impressive counter-attacking flair and adventure.
With the faint whiff of Wembley in their nostrils now though, it all starts to feel very real for the League Two side. Do they defend what they have or go for it and keep attacking? It seems Parkinson knows the answer already:
“They carry a real threat going forward but their weakness is defensively,” Parkinson told BBC Radio Leeds. “It would be foolish for us to go there to defend for 90 minutes. We have to carry a threat ourselves and we certainly will. The best way for us to progress is to score and we will endeavour to do that.”
3) Beware Benteke
Christian Benteke has been one of the revelations of the Premier League since joining Villa this season and demonstrated all his raw power and goalscoring instinct with a blistering strike against local rivals West Bromwich Albion at the weekend. On reflection the young Belgian striker was in fact quite unlucky not to make our Premier League list of most exciting young talents in The 10 Series.
Benteke missed some golden opportunities against Bradford in the first leg. Can they keep him out once again here?
4) Doing very Wells indeed
With his enterprising style, pace and impressive dribbling skills Nahki Wells has been one of the undoubted stars of this season’s Capital One Cup. With Bradford set to employ a counter-attacking strategy here can Villa’s creaky defence keep him quiet?
Wells, a 22-year-old Bermudan international who joined Bradford at the start of the campaign, is being strongly linked with a move up the ladder very soon, with Leeds United said to be interested among others. Bradford’s heroic keeper Matt Duke is another key player whose performance will go some way to determining the fate of this game.
5) Can Villa’s defence hold firm?
Paul Lambert’s team have an appalling defensive record of late – 24 goals conceded in their last 9 games and only 6 clean sheets all season. Lambert has employed different tactical setups at the back as well as many different personnel (mainly thanks to injuries to key players), but hasn’t quite found the right balance.
All three goals against Bradford in the first leg came from set pieces, a damning indictment of Aston Villa’s defence that a League Two side could exploit that so easily.
Villa may have the attacking firepower to salvage a two-goal deficit but can they keep it tight enough at the back for it to push them into a Wembley final that would give the entire club a massive morale boost?