If all eleven Aston Villa players joined into one, nebulous being - you’d have heard it scream one thing during it’s match with Middlesbrough - ‘Witness me’. True to form, Aston Villa showed up for a big occasion and delivered as best they could. A performance of true grit, balance and bravado.
Pre-match, you could feel the occasion. It vibrated through like a physical force. This, of course, was no normal match. A cauldron of noise burst from the home crowd, with the small away following drowned out, despite their best efforts.
Conor Hourihane started the game with a crunching tackle, which amplified the game instantly. It wasn’t the only choice challenge within the first five minutes either - as Robert Snodgrass caught a boot to the head, James Chester grabbed onto Britt Assombalonga and Jack Grealish was met with a rough body check. It got physical, to say the least.
Villa opened up the play with their first chance as ten minutes approached, but Lewis Grabban’s tracking cross was met by an empty box. Middlesbrough countered with Adama Traore surging forward, before Alan Hutton reduced him to the floor with a trademark (yet clean) sliding challenge.
The thumping melee didn’t stop there. Conor Hourihane was presented with a yellow card at the 13 minute mark due to dangerous play. Following that, Jack Grealish snapped the ball from Muhamed Besic before being clattered to the ground by Jonny Howson.
Villa’s first attempt on goal, resulted in just that. An in-swinging corner from Jack Grealish was met by a storming Mile Jedinak who glanced the ball into the corner of the net. A moment of silence was met by an eruption of adulation from the travelling support. The Australian surged forward and found an ocean of free space that allowed him to attack the ball. The water-tight Middlesbrough defence at set-plays had been undone within twenty minutes. It was such a simple goal to have avoided.
Boro didn’t learn their lesson easily, and when Villa lined up for their second corner of the game - they still refused to put a man on the far post. A mistake they almost came to regret as Albert Adomah snuck in, only to deliver the ball into the side-netting following Robert Snodgrass’ curling ball in.
Middlesbrough seemed to stumble back to life after Villa’s goal provoked them, however, two separate Britt Assombalonga chances went wide. The first saw the Congolese striker fall off balance and blast the ball skyward and the second rolled into the side-netting.
His third chance of the game, however, was destined for the net. Adama Traore found room on the right after switching sides with Stewart Downing, and whipped in an inside cross which found a falling Assombalonga who headed at goal. Sam Johnstone, was equal to the effort and stopped the attempt on the goal-line before falling onto the ball.
While pre-match plaudits were directed into the path of Traore, Jack Grealish showed an impressive amount of dribbling ability towards the end of the first half. Emulating Paul Gascogine, the Villa man picked up the ball outside the Villa box, before storming forward through the centre and out to the left. No less than five fouls were thrown in on Grealish, before he pulled into the Boro box and laid a shot off. While no game came off it, it was an almost electrifying delight to see Villa’s boy come good in front of the eyes of the watching world.
Robert Snodgrass came extremely close to doubling Villa’s lead with a curling effort from the left-hand side, conjured from his spring-loaded left foot. The shot was matched perfectly by a diving Randolph who stretched to tip the shot onto the post and out of play just before the whistle was blown for half-time.
The second-half of play (and the second-quarter of total semi-final action) mirrored the first-half, with Ben Gibson of Middlesbrough falling into the referee’s book straight away with a rough challenge on Jedinak.
Adama had found room to feast on Villa on the left, after switching sides with Stewart Downing - so Steve Bruce made the bold decision to rotate Ahmed Elmohamady and Alan Hutton, with Hutton settling in on the right Villa flank. It seemed to be the right move, as the Scot had found success stifling Traore in the first-half and looked comfortable dealing with him on the other side of the pitch.
Middlesbrough’s defence, however, took a blow when Daniel Ayala left the pitch injured, with former Manchester United man Fabio his replacement. The Brazilian failed to make an immediate impact, however, when he roamed into the Villa box and failed to pick out Britt Assombalonga due to James Chester’s coverage.
Villa’s first change of the game came with the introduction of Jonathan Kodjia for Albert Adomah under immense pressure from Middlesbrough, who had spent the second half camped in Villa’s half of the pitch.
Our boys did manage to get a chance rolling as Jack Grealish broke through the middle, once again, finding with Lewis Grabban with ease - but the forward’s shot on goal had too much comfort, and not enough fury, and simply rolled towards Randolph in the Boro goal. He was taken off for Birkir Bjarnason shortly afterwards.
Middlesbrough continued their barrage, with Fabio finding himself in a starring role once more. The full-back rose to force Sam Johnstone into a parry. Jonathan Kodjia also joined the picture of frustrated Villa men when he enrolled into a spat with Ryan Shotton. George Friend also wasted a chance, spending an eternity setting himself for a volley in open space before sending into orbit.
Fear flared into the game once more for Villa when they were reduced to ten men - with Ahmed Elmohamady falling prey to a hamstring injury, limping off the pitch to the boos of the home crowd. Glenn Whelan replaced the Egyptian, with Bjarnason filling it at left-back.
With five minutes of added time, Villa retreated to their box, preparing a final heroic display of defensive abilities, with the away following throwing their voices onto the pitch with a rowsing volley of ‘Claret & Blue Army’. John Terry was the first to head the ball to safety. Robert Snodgrass was the second to clear the ball into space. Fabio found space once more, but his shot was blocked by a sliding Bjarnason.
The game died amid pained cries from the home crowd. Victory, in it’s most sweetest form. A stolen win at the Riverside Stadium, and AVFC have taken safety back to a sold out Villa Park.