As the final whistle blew at the Eithad Stadium, Manchester City’s relief was tangible.
Make no mistake, Wednesday gave them a real scare in an absorbing FA Cup third round clash yesterday. James Milner’s second half doubled spared City’s blushes.
Wednesday went toe-to-toe with the champions of England and a major upset looked on the cards after Atdhe Nuhiu’s 14th minute opener. It took City over an hour to register a shot on target.
This showing epitomised the team spirit Owls head coach Stuart Gray has instilled in his side. They arguably deserved a replay for a spirited, dogged display.
Ultimately, though, City’s class prevailed, but only after they sent on over £50m of talent in the form of David Silva, Samir Nasri and Gael Clichy.
There were so many heroes in yellow and blue from Chris Kirkland in goal to Nuhiu.
They all worked incredibly hard, putting in heroic shifts. Despite Milner’s cruel last minute winner, Owls head coach Stuart Gray had every right to be proud of his side.
It is amazing to think that Wednesday gave them such a fright, given they lost 7-0 on their last trip to Manchester.
Gray said: “I thought it was nailed on we would get them back to Hillsborough for a replay but they showed the quality they’ve got.
“We can walk out of here with our heads held high after a great performance.
“One lapse of concentration can cost you and we kept giving the ball away which put us under pressure.”
Keiren Westwood’s absence raised a few eyebrows. The goalkeeper, who is reportedly attracting the interest of Liverpool, missed out because of a calf strain, meaning just a fourth start of the season for Kirkland.
Gray made one enforced change to his back four, bringing in Claude Dielna for the injured Joe Mattock.
With Lewis McGugan having gone back to Watford following his successful loan stint at Hillsborough, Kieran Lee was recalled to midfield.
Gray also decided to give Chris Maguire a breather, dropping the Scot to the bench in favour of Stevie May.
Centre-back Will De Havilland was included in Wednesday’s match-day squad for the first time as Gray named a youthful, inexperienced bench.
As expected, Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini fielded a strong side, featuring Yaya Toure, Frank Lampard and James Milner. Eight players out of City’s starting line-up started when the two teams last collided. World class duo Vincent Kompany (hamstring) Sergio Aguero (knee) remain sidelined.
Owls looked to stifle City in the early skirmishes, restricting them to few goal-scoring opportunities. Jesus Navas, who tormented Mattock in the last meeting, flashed a fierce right foot shot over the top after Owls only partially cleared a corner.
Then came the opener as Wednesday caught their illustrious opponents napping on the counter attack.
Lee slipped a delightful pass down the left hand side of City’s defence into May, who dribbled forward at pace before teeing up Nuhiu and the big striker made no mistake from 15 yards. Cue pandemonium in the away end as 5,500 Wednesdayites danced for joy.
Gray said: “Last time we were here, we got beat 7-0. It was 0-0 at half time and they went up a gear and put seven past us. It was nice to go in at 1-0. I think we thoroughly deserved it.
We had a gameplan to hit them on the break, we frustrated them.
The goal that we got - Stevie pulled away on the break and pulled it back to Nuhiu and it was a great finish.”
Unsurprisingly, City monopolised possession but they struggled to break down Gray’s well organised side. Toure, making potentially his last appearance before joining up with Ivory Coast for the Africa Cup of Nations, scuffed an effort well off target midway through the half to sum up their frustration.
Fresh from signing a new deal with the champions of England, Lampard steered a low right foot drive narrowly wide after a neat lay-off by Stevan Jovetic.
There were cries of “Come on City” at the half hour mark. Some of their approach play was neat and tidy but they lacked ideas in the final third. Wednesday stood firm and manfully stuck to their jobs.
Indeed, the visitors grew in confidence as the half wore on. Stevie May tried his luck from distance but the Scotland international failed to test Willy Caballero as his strike sailed harmlessly wide.
The Owls made City, who have reached the final of the competition twice in the last four seasons, appear extremely ordinary.
Things nearly got even better for Wednesday after the break following good link up between May and Nuhiu, with the latter feeding Dielna but his right foot curler was comfortably gathered by Caballero.
Navas underlined his class on the ball, whipping in a dangerous delivery which agonisingly evaded Lampard in the centre.
More and more questions were starting to be asked of Wednesday’s backline and Lampard drilled a shot over the top after being released by Milner but it would not have counted anyway as Lampard was standing in an off-side position.
City played at a much higher tempo in the second period, pushing Wednesday back towards their own 18 yard line. The introductions of Silva and Nasri injected more creativity and sparked them into life.
Silva was the architect of City’s 66th minute leveller, freeing Milner, who, from an acute angle, unleashed a rasping left foot drive through Kirkland’s legs and into the back of the net.
Both Toure and Milner spurned chances to complete the turnaround as the hosts piled on the pressure.
But it was no all one way traffic.
It took a superb last ditch challenge by Navas to prevent Jacques Maghoma from testing Caballero’s reflexes after a fine break from deep by consistently outstanding Helan.
Kirkland produced a good stop, diving to his left, to foil the influential Silva before Milner, on his 29th birthday, tapped in from close range in added on time after a lovely cross by Navas to break Wednesday’s hearts.
“It was just tired minds that caught us out,” said Gray. “They kept the ball than us in the last 15 minutes. When you have tired minds, you can make mistakes unfortunately.”
It is now 16 FA Cup ties since Wednesday last beat a top flight team but they ran City ever so close.
Manchester City: Caballero 7; Sagna 7, Boyata 7, Mangala 7, Kolarov 7 (Clichy*** 75); Fernando 6, Toure 6; Milner 8, Navas 7, Lampard 7 (Silva* 61, 7), Jovetic 6 (Nasri** 61, 7). Substitutes: Hart, Demichelis, Fernandinho, Celina.
Wednesday: Kirkland 7; Palmer 7, Lees 8, Loovens 8, Dielna 7 (McCabe 84***); Semedo 8, Lee 8, Helan 8; Maghoma 8, May 7 (Lavery 66* 6), Nuhiu 8 (Maguire 75**). Substitutes: Dawson, Maguire, Corry, Young, De Havilland.