They came to see the new signing Mbwana Samatta but left talking about a player whose roots lie much closer to home. Jack Grealish was born just up the road and joined Aston Villa’s academy at the age of six so he knows what a first piece of silverware since 1996 would mean in these parts.
On the evidence of this thrilling performance, during which Villa’s talisman dominated against a Leicester side featuring his potential England rival James Maddison, there can be only one choice for Gareth Southgate when he names his next squad for the friendlies against Italy and Denmark in March.
Grealish has still yet to make his senior debut having controversially chosen to represent the land of his birth over the Republic of Ireland back in 2015 but surely now he deserves an opportunity to stake a claim having helped Villa reach their first major final since that season’s FA Cup defeat to Arsenal.
News of Samatta’s inclusion had been greeted with a huge roar from the home supporters just before kick-off, with the 27-year-old handed his debut despite last having played competitively at the start of last month. Such is Villa’s desperation for a goalscorer in the absence of their record signing Wesley, however, that Dean Smith will be aware the £8.5m paid to Belgian champions Genk could end up deciding whether they stay in the Premier League or not.
Samatta’s transfer has been big news back home in Tanzania, where images of the son of a retired policeman already adorn most billboards in the capital city, Dar es Salaam, following his exploits at Genk and for the Taifa Stars national team. His impact in Belgium after signing from TP Mazembe in 2016 is illustrated by the fact that 16-year-old Tanzanian starlet Kelvin John has already been snapped up by the club whose celebrated youth academy produced Kevin De Bruyne, Divock Origi and Wilfred Ndidi in the past.
It is actually more than 50 years since Villa became the first English club to field an east African player, with Zambia’s Freddie Mwila and Emment Kapengwe both featuring in the First Division back in 1969 after being signed by Tommy Docherty.
They ended up playing just four games in total but if Samatta, who claimed he used to be a big fan of Gabriel Agbonlahor as a young man, is to prove successful in the Midlands then Grealish will surely be pivotal in providing the opportunities in front of goal. The 24-year-old’s impudent flick to set up Matt Targett’s goal which edged Villa in front in this tie was a sign of his growing confidence in a stadium where he can do no wrong.
Having looked a willing runner until then, Samatta must have thought his big moment had arrived midway through the half when Frédéric Guilbert found space on the left and picked him out for a simple finish, only for VAR to correctly scupper his celebration immediately for offside against the Frenchman.
At the other end, Villa had Orjan Nyland to thank for protecting their slender advantage after a number of spectacular saves, culminating in the acrobatic effort to somehow tip a shot from Youri Tielemens on to the crossbar.
With Jamie Vardy watching on from the bench having been deemed not quite fit enough to start, Brendan Rodgers opted to select Kelechi Iheanacho in his place and the Nigeria striker proved a handful for Villa’s central defensive pairing of Tyrone Mings and Ezri Konsa even if he could not find a way past the Norwegian goalkeeper.
Samatta’s next big chance came on the half-hour mark when he failed to connect cleanly with Targett’s cross after another brilliant piece of play from Grealish. He will be relieved it did not prove to be crucial.
The introduction of Vardy, the pantomime villain, 10 minutes into the second half raised the temperature in the stands on a chilly night in Birmingham. Yet it was Grealish, with his socks rolled down his ankles à la George Best, who still commanded attention. One passage of play midway through the second half saw him intercept a pass before delivering a perfect cross that was inches away from being converted. Another delivery moments later somehow eluded Samatta at the far post when it would only have taken a touch to divert the ball past Kasper Schmeichel.
It was no surprise to see the striker replaced by Keinan Davis with a quarter of the match still to play and Villa pressing for the crucial second goal. Yet everything changed in an instant when Iheanacho side-footed home from a sumptuous cross by Harvey Barnes just as Demarai Gray was being readied to replace him.
In the end, it was Trézéguet who stole the headlines with his injury-time winner to send the home supporters into raptures and to Wembley on 1 March for a final against Manchester City or United. But, make no mistake, it was Grealish who pulled the strings.