By Oliver Dixon
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Both sides fielded strong line-ups, with the Boro making five changes to the side that faced the Foxes. Many fans expected to see new £6m signing Rudy Gestede make his first start for the club, but the F.A. Cup third round may have come a little too soon for the former-Villa and Blackburn Rovers man, as Karanka opted for ‘the beast’ Alvaro Negredo to lead the line instead.
Bernardo Espinosa and Grant Leadbitter were making their first starts since the defeat at Old Trafford, a game in which both players stood out. Dani Ayala’s name on the teamsheet made for surprise viewing, in a week he had been linked with a move away from the club. The Riverside also saw the return of former Boro boy Adam Reach, who left on a permanent basis in the summer, there was rapturous applause as his name was read over the tannoy before the game.
The first-half brought about little-to-no chances for both sides. Traore tried his hardest to create chances playing on the opposite side to his usual right-midfield position, driving at players with pace and power, but nothing came to fruition.
Dani Ayala had Boro’s best chance of the opening 45 minutes, firing over from 12-yards after Sheffield Wednesday’s goalkeeper Joe Wildsmith (who had looked shaky throughout the opening exchanges) punched a cross straight to the feet of the Spanish defender. The half-time whistle couldn’t come soon enough for Aitor Karanka, who surely knew something had to change in the second period.
Both teams would’ve wanted to avoid a replay at all costs, as a reverse trip to Hillsborough could prove costly in both Wednesday’s promotion hopes and Boro’s chances in the Premier League, and so both sides went at it all guns blazing in the second-half.
Barry Bannan was at the heart of everything for Wednesday with his incisive passing and undoubted ability on the ball, but it was his foul that gifted Boro a free-kick on the edge of the area, and what turned out to be our first goal of the afternoon.
Up stepped captain and ‘Mr. Reliable’ Grant Leadbitter. There was a sense of inevitability about the free-kick as he bent the ball into the bottom right corner. The goal was exactly what the game needed to open up. Before Leadbitter’s opener, the Owls had looked dangerous, but it was Boro who were in the box seat now.
Leadbitter now has two goals in two starts, and Teesside’s favourite Mackem could be pushing for a start in the upcoming weeks.
But just seconds after the restart, Boro hearts were in mouths as Dani Ayala was shown a straight red card for what at first glance looked to be a shoulder-barge on forward Fernando Forestieri. Replays showed the true nature of the foul as Ayala looked to have lead with his elbow into the face of the Italian, and so maybe the cries of ‘you don’t know what you’re doing’ towards referee David Coote may have been slightly unjust.
As Wednesday pushed for an all-important equaliser, Wednesday contributed heavily to their own downfall. A heavily hit back pass from left-back Daniel Pudil saw ‘keeper Wildsmith take a first touch to control and a second to attempt to clear the ball up the pitch. But the industrious Negredo charged down the young goalie who smashed the ball against the forward for 2-0.
The goal was met with cheers and some laughter as the ball cannoned in off Boro’s number 10, and the crowd soon shifted their attention to the travelling Wednesday fans, singing ‘we only need ten men’ to the 3,000 in blue and white.
At some points after the sending off we still looked the better side, and played some of the best football of the afternoon with a player short. Cristhian Stuani, who arguably had his best 45 minutes since the game at the Stadium of Light in August, looked a real livewire in the second-half. He showed a rare turn of pace, grit and determination, as well good feet in the last third in the latter stages of the game, and was key in the final goal of the afternoon.
Stuani used his aerial presence to knock-down a cross-field ball from Espinosa to the skipper Leadbitter, who’s back heel brought Stuani back into play. Not known for his dribbling or skill-set whatsoever, Stuani danced his way between two defenders before hitting his shot straight at the onrushing Wildsmith. The rebound fell to Marten De Roon who rifled a left footed shot into the top corner.
Even though Wednesday are the league below, many fans didn’t see this as an easy game, myself included, and it wasn’t by any means. The 3-0 score line might have flattered Boro on the day, but the biggest positive was our second half performance with a man down. It showed we have that aggression and determination, and that cutting edge that maybe we’ve been lacking recently.
Onwards and upwards, bring on the fourth round.