Two titanic tussles, two deserved winners. After three hours of action in each semi-final, we finally know which two sides will contest the first domestic cup final of the English league season and it will be Aston Villa who face Manchester City on Sunday, March 1st.
Aston Villa 2-1 Leicester City (3-2 on aggregate)
The first semi-final to be decided took place at a pulsating Villa Park. With the sides level after 90 minutes at the King Power Stadium, it was the visitors who got off to the brightest start, with James Maddison at the heart of several intricate moves. Twice, Maddison was the architect of the shot at the end of those moves, but he was denied superbly on both occasions by Ørjan Nyland in the Villa goal.
Inspired by their goalkeeper’s ridiculous resolution between the sticks, Villa went up the other end and scored with their first attack, Jack Grealish managing to squeeze the ball out to Matt Targett, who fired an unstoppable rocket past the despairing stare of Kasper Schmeichel in The Foxes goal.
Grealish was everywhere, crossing, shooting, picking up every loose ball, his socks around his ankle, his heart firmly on his Villa sleeve. The boy from Birmingham was dragging his boyhood club to Wembley. Or that was until Leicester equalised. In what looked like a heartbreaking moment for the bellowing home fans, Iheanacho slammed home at the far post as Nyland was finally denied the chance to defend the goal, the ball into the net before he knew it.
Still, though, there was time for more drama, as in the 92nd minute, a goal made it Egypt sent the Villa Park faithful into ecstasy. The Villains may be nowhere near the top of the football league pyramid they duked it out with Manchester United for back in 1993, but when Ahmed Elmohamedy curled over a far post ball for his compatriot Trezeguet to slot home, Villa had done it. Leicester, beaten at last, could be embodied by the prone body of Çağlar Söyüncü on his knees in the smoke from flares all around him.
The Foxes, fearless as ever, will live to fight more days like this with the talent in their squad. For Villa, however, it is a mark of how far they have come in just 10 months that less than a year on from winning the play-off final to reach the Premier League, they will be taking on its reigning champions for the first domestic trophy that is available. They simply cannot be written off.
Manchester City 0-1 Manchester United (3-2 on aggregate)
The Red Devils won at The Etihad Stadium again, but were unable to climb the mountainous task set by their first-half performance in the first leg as The Citizens scraped through to Wembley.
With United needing to win by two goals and shorn of the collective talents of players as vital as £89m man Paul Pogba, top scorer Marcus Rashford and clutch midfielder Scott McTominay, it was a patched up away side who held out for the first half an hour. Then, something strange happened. The crowd got wary of the possibility of conceding and the feeling spread to the pitch like a fog enveloping the players. The first player the mist of doubt struck was Nemanja Matic, who, stuck on the far right of the penalty area from a free-kick from Fred that missed its intended target – ominous irony klaxon number two sounding at the same time – the Serb slammed home a skillful opener, his volley crashing into the City goal off the upright. Claudio Bravo was stranded, a yard away from even getting a touch.
City came again in the second half as they tried to seal the result. Aguero scored two goals but saw them both – rightly – chalked off for offside. David De Gea added to his already illogically large collection of impossible saves by reeling off at least two more on the night, the first a stunning one-handed tip away from an astute Aguero header. There was time for Harry Maguire to miss his 156th header of the campaign so far, for Nemanja Matic to see red for a yellow card that looked like it had to be made, but maybe didn’t. And still there was a shot at red glory.
A minute on the clock, a free-kick 20 yards from a nervous Bravo’s goal. Around the free-kick, Fred, who had already shown profligacy throughout the game, and Juan Mata, brought on as a late substitute for what seemed like exactly that sort of opportunity. Mata was overlooked, Fred hit the wall, United did so too. City progressed to the final, while United were left to rue that first half in the first leg, where the ghost of every Phil Jones meme rose from its grave to scythe madly at United’s hopes of reaching the final.
Aston Villa will take on Manchester City at Wembley on the first day of March. If the final has anywhere near the drama of the semi-finals, then everyone – except the losers – are in for a treat.