The first leg of a League Cup tie is always a massive game, but Aston Villa's trip to Valley Parade has implications that are even more far reaching than would typically be the case.
Bradford City's road to League Cup seminfinal is quite legitimately remarkable. The Bantams have defeated opposition from every division of the football league along the way, with three of their five victories coming away from home, including a win in penalties over Wigan Athletic at the DW Stadium. Bradford's most famous win of this run came against Arsenal in the quarterfinals, when they scored early, conceded late, hung on through extra time and won their ninth consecutive penalty shootout to become the first fourth-division team since Paul Lambert's Wycombe Wanderers side in 2006-07. It's a run that's almost single-handedly pulled the club out of some significant financial difficulty, and from a neutral perspective it's just downright awesome and serves as a reminder of why cup competitions are so wonderful.
It has also, predictably, led to a narrative of Bradford City: giant killers. It's an easy one to sell after all, because the Bantams have legitimately killed giants. (In this case, yes, Wigan counts. Relative to Bradford, Watford might even count.) It's also not really something people should be paying much mind outside of the novelty of the situation. Yes, Bradford should be commended for making it this far, and should they defeat Aston Villa in the semifinals it will be a truly historic accomplishment. I'll be the first to offer my congratulations, and though losing this tie would be a pretty massive kick in the teeth I'd be as big a Bantams fan as any come the day of the final.
But what Bradford has done so far in the League Cup doesn't change the fact that they're currently 8th in League Two, 59 places below Villa. There's just a huge disparity in talent between the two sides, and with Villa beginning to get healthy once again and the mix of players used against Ipswich on Saturday there's little reason to expect them to start a weakened side. The Bantams are a story because they've managed a nice string of upsets, but it's important to not lose sight of the fact that they were upsets for a reason.
Bradford clearly has a pretty decent idea of how to set themselves up for cup ties, as evidenced by the struggles Wigan and Arsenal had in terms of breaking them down. But the two-legged semifinal format reduces the effectiveness of that approach to some degree, and in that sense this first leg is absolutely vital to Bradford's hopes of advancing to Wembley. This is already going to be a difficult task, and though it's one the Bantams have shown they're capable of meeting, having to do it twice in the space of a week is a far more difficult challenge. But if Bradford has a good showing at home and can manage to go to Villa Park without needing a goal, that's got to be good for their level of confidence and potentially quite damaging for Villa's.
In that sense, it would be a bigger relief than usual to see Villa come out and attack the opposition from the beginning. An early goal would really change the complexion of things, and with the squad having been reminded that they are in fact capable of winning thanks to their FA Cup win over Ipswich, keeping the positive trend going would be quite wonderful. I don't pretend to know a great deal about Bradford's strengths, weaknesses and overall mentality, but it doesn't seem as though it would be too big of a stretch to think that Villa's task would be disproportionately easier than a single goal would typically lead one to believe.
Aston Villa will be heavy favorites, and that's not a role in which they have a great deal of experience this season. There was a great deal in which to find encouragement against Ipswich, but that still was not the kind of performance you'd expect to see from a confident team. How they start the game will go a long way towards determining how they start the tie which could go a long way towards determining how the rest of the season shakes out. This is the biggest game of the season so far, and not only because Wembley is on the line. If Aston Villa can't come out on top of this tie, that shouldn't give anyone much confidence in their ability to avoid a prolonged relegation battle in the league. No pressure, guys.