Middlesbrough 3 Sheffield Wednesday 0
A tie that had threatened to turn into a grim case study highlighting the compelling need for a winter break instead burst, belatedly, into vibrant, dramatic life.
As if goals from Grant Leadbitter, Álvaro Negredo and Marten de Roon were not sufficient, there was also controversy with Middlesbrough's Daniel Ayala contentiously sent off as Aitor Karanka's side headed for the fourth round.
With Middlesbrough 16th in the Premier League and desperate to avoid relegation and promotion-hungry Wednesday sixth in the Championship, it represented something of a phoney war.
Both Karanka and Carlos Carvalhal could have done without the tie and both made as many changes – five in the former's case and six in the latter's – as they reasonably could without opening themselves to accusations of devaluing the competition by fielding weakened teams.
An ominously low tone was set when, unmarked and under minimal pressure, Boro's Adama Traoré swiftly passed precisely to the feet of Wednesday's Daniel Pudil. Traoré subsequently compensated for that slapdash lapse by creating some space out of nothing and whipping in a fine cross from which Negredo would have surely given Boro the lead had he been concentrating rather than daydreaming, yet that cameo proved a rare highlight.
Indeed as hard as Adam Reach, once a Boro player, worked down Wednesday's left and willing as George Friend was to overlap from left-back for Karanka's side, the principal first-half talking point was the visitors' extraordinarily fluorescent orange shorts which were accessorised by matching, bonfire bright, hooped socks.
It will have been no surprise if spectators’ eyes strayed to the electronic perimeter hoardings which kept issuing reminders that Emirates fly to six continents. Such advertising was perhaps timely as, back out on the pitch, Boro, particularly, bore the leaden look of a team in urgent need of some sun on their backs.
Although generally comfortable at the back – where Ayala and Bernardo Espinosa’s brand new centre-back pairing functioned smoothly enough – Karanka’s players were evidently fatigued following the fixture-clogged festive period and seemed all out of attacking ideas, incision and, above all, adrenaline.
By half-time a press box debate as to whether the tie was worse than Sunderland’s enervating 0-0 home draw with Burnley on Saturday had opened – and the already convincing case for a winter break had strengthened appreciably.
The second half began with the two goalkeepers still largely idle although with Reach switched to the right, Callum McManaman – who replaced Ross Wallace at half-time – was at least troubling Calum Chambers, the home right-back, with some menacing runs.
Almost imperceptibly things were livening up and, soon a goal arrived – albeit from a set piece. When Barry Bannan was rightly shown a yellow card for hacking Marten de Roon down around 20 yards out Leadbitter reinforced his reputation as a dead-ball specialist by curving the ensuing free-kick round the wall and into the bottom corner, right-footed.
Further drama quickly ensued when, almost immediately, Ayala was shown a straight red card for sending Fernando Forestieri crashing with a blatant body check as the forward burst through on goal. That challenge definitely warranted a yellow but could hardly be said to have denied a clear goal-scoring opportunity as Forestieri was about 25 yards out and more than one defender was in the vicinity. Even so, Karanka did not even look at his centre-half, linked with a potential move to Turkey, as Ayala trudged off.
Not that the Spaniard should have worried about his side's reduction to 10 men. Instead Joe Wildsmith, Wednesday's keeper, assuaged home anxieties by making a mess of what should have been a routine clearance and allowing Negredo to score. Although Wildsmith seemed to have adequate time the striker charged him down and his attempted clearance ricocheted off the Boro forward before flying into the back of the net from close range.
It was a shame for Carvalhal’s keeper who had earlier done well to defuse the danger when Negredo’s clever pass had picked out the unmarked De Roon but Boro fans delighted in reminding him of his error.
Their side soon had the ball in the back of the net again but Cristhian Stuani’s effort was correctly disallowed for offside. Undeterred Stuani cued up De Roon to shoot the third in stoppage time.