Aston Villa booked their first Wembley final appearance in a decade after a 6-4 victory over Blackburn Rovers in the second leg of their League Cup semi-final on Wednesday.
Victory at Villa Park saw Martin O'Neill's men win the tie 7-4 on aggregate and they will now face either Manchester City or Manchester United in the final. But his pre-match claim that this was the best Villa team their supporters had seen in 20 years looked hollow as a double from Nikola Kalinic put Rovers 2-0 up.
Villa endured a dreadful opening 25 minutes as they squandered the first leg advantage James Milner had given them in a 1-0 win at Ewood Park before the tie swung in their favour with the dismissal of Rovers' Christopher Samba five minutes before half-time. Milner converted the penalty, which resulted from Samba's foul in bringing down Gabriel Agbonlahor and added a second goal to cap a wonderful personal display which will only further enhance his England credentials as Villa moved within a match of winning their first trophy in 14 years.
But the way in which Villa fought back and then just about held their nerve at the end of this extraordinary match left O'Neill proud of the character his youthful side had shown. "I'm just really pleased for the team, which I know is a cliched old phrase, but I'm really delighted for them," O'Neill said. "They've had to fight back, whilst the crowd were obviously getting very anxious and frustrated, and they grew up tonight."
Blackburn continued to push Villa all the way, even a man down. After Kalinic's double, Stephen Warnock converted at the far post, following Ashley Young's cross, to put Villa back into the tie and make amends for his earlier error that gave Rovers such an emphatic start.
Warnock was at fault at the far post, failing to challenge Croatia's Kalinic for David Dunn's corner under the crossbar and the Rovers striker's header struck Warnock on the head before beating American goalkeeper Brad Guzan. Villa were two down before the half hour mark when Kalinic started the move, which resulted in him tapping home the rebound after Martin Olsson's header from Morten Gamst Pedersen's cross had been half saved by Guzan.
Villa simply could not get to grips with Rovers' five-man midfield, but that all changed when Samba was shown a straight red card for his trip on Agbonlahor as the pair chased Emile Heskey's through ball. Milner beat Paul Robinson from the spot before an own goal from Steven Nzonzi and further goals from Agbonlahor and Heskey left Villa with a seemingly comfortable lead.
At that point they could be forgiven for turning their thoughts to whether they played Manchester United or Manchester City, but at least Rovers demonstrated some character of their own to push Villa close.
Olsson produced a stunning volley from Gael Givet's cross to reduce the deficit and when Brett Emerton's volley from the edge of the area forced its way through a crowded penalty area, their were some nervous moments for Villa to endure. But Ashley Young rounded off the evening with a wonderful solo effort, running from half way to beat Robinson with a curling shot.