Aston Villa 0-1 Manchester City
Although the tidal wave of controversy almost allowed it to go unnoticed, Manchester United’s victory over Liverpool sent Alex Ferguson’s men above Manchester City and to the top of the table on Saturday. But it was clear from their performance at Villa Park on Sunday that Roberto Mancini’s men knew full well that they had been dislodged from the top of the Premier League.
Maturity seems to be in short supply in England’s top division at the moment, but City showed they had it in abundance as they did all that was necessary to defeat Aston Villa and rise back to the pinnacle of English football.
From the burst of the referee’s whistle City were the only side you could foresee winning the game. Vincent Kompany and Joleon Lescott were more than happy to knock it around at the back, inviting Villa to venture forth from their deep defensive position. But Villa were just as happy to let them have it, all too aware that Sergio Aguero, David Silva, James Milner and Adam Johnson were all on hand to expose their lack of pace in defence.
Despite Alex McCleish’s side adopting such a regimented shape typical of the Scotsman, City still looked very dangerous going forward and managed to find gaps in Villa’s defence on several occasions early on. An example of City’s incisiveness came after just two minutes when a poor headed clearance from James Collins was nodded back to Aguero on the edge of the Villa area. The Argentine jinked to make space and unleashed a strong drive at goal, but it was straight at Shay Given.
David Silva typified Man City’s dominance of the game with the ubiquitous presence he has displayed so often this season, and his ability to find space and receive passes everywhere allowed his side to maintain long spells of pressure in Villa’s half.
To be fair to the Birmingham club though, they limited the wealthiest side in the world to just a handful of half chances and did look like they might be able to snatch a goal from a set-piece when Collins and Richard Dunne strode forward.
But they were not in the opposing half nearly often enough to really threaten City, and Darren Bent and Robbie Keane were reduced to roles as extras for most of the game.
Villa sat back and had neither the inclination or the passing ability to counter Man City’s many attacks. So the away side naturally pinned Villa in, and, shortly after 15 minutes, Adam Johnson smashed a driven shot against the base of Given’s right post having been allowed to cut inside just outside the area onto his favoured left foot. Hopefully Stuart Pearce took note of the young winger’s exploits as the Caretaker Manager of The national side watched from the stands.
Other than Johnson’s effort, though, there was very little to get excited about in the first half and, to City’s frustration, the teams went in level at the break.
To the delight of their fans, Villa started the second half with a higher defensive line and looked much more positive, passing the ball around more freely. It was not to last though and they quickly dropped deep as soon as City gained a stronghold on possession. The next time Villa fans would get excited would be when a streaker ran on the pitch with 15 minutes left.
Until then, they had to watch their side face an onslaught of corners and free-kicks delivered with precision by Milner and Silva respectively. But still City could not break through. Not until the 63rd minute, that is.
It was then that James Milner floated in a corner from the left, deep into the other side of the six-yard area, where Gareth Barry neatly cushioned the ball down for Lescott to half-volley into the Villa net from close range.
Such a relief for City having plugged away at Villa for so long.
The goal seemed to make a huge difference to both sides as gaps in Villa’s defence became more prominent and City quickly exploited them with two successive attacks resulting in good chances for Silva and Aguero.
On the 69th minute, McCleish finally decided a change in philosophy was necessary and brought on Charles N’Zogbia for Emile Heskey. The French winger’s introduction gave Villa a much needed outlet on the right wing. The addition of Stephen Ireland shortly after then gave Villa the impetus going forward.
However, they weren’t about to simply steamroller Man City with free flowing football, it just meant they enjoyed more possession and much of it higher up the pitch, leading to more set pieces as City defended doggedly.
City’s decision to sit back and soak up the pressure exerted by Villa seemed naive given the fact they had dominated and gone ahead by Villa adopting those same tactics. And it almost proved to be their undoing.
When a shot from N’Zogbia was deflected out for a corner by Lescott, Carlos Cuellar really should have scored as his run from the edge of the area saw him arrive unmarked only to head the ball over the bar.
Minutes later, Villa would have devastated City and snatched a point had it not been for a stunning save from Joe Hart. James Collins headed down another corner floated in by Stillian Petrov and Darren Bent, tightly marked and five yards from goal, somehow managed to get a scooped overhead kick on target, but Hart’s tremendous reflexes saved City’s blushes – not for the first time this season, and certainly not for the last.
Villa kept up the pressure until Dunne clashed with Hart going for a cross, and a nasty fall resulted in the Republic of Ireland defender needing treatment on the pitch and he subsequently substituted.
Other than a late, late scare when Hart mishandled a poor header back by Gareth Barry, nearly gifting Robbie Keane the equaliser, the game was sewn up.
Villa showed no ambition to win the game and only showed enough ambition to equalise when it was too late. Their current philosophy is frustrating their most loyal of fans, and is a sad site to see for the neutral too.
Man City, however, will be pleased at a job done. Not well done, but done nonetheless. They are back on the top of the league.
Aston Villa: Given; Hutton, Cuellar, Dunne (Baker 90’+), Collins; Albrighton (Ireland 77′), Petrov, Gardner, Heskey (N’Zogbia 69′); Keane, Bent
Unused subs: Guzan, Warnock, Bannan, Weimann
Manchester City: Hart; Zabaleta, Kompany, Lescott, Kolarov; De Jong, Barry; Johnson (Nasri 84′), Milner, Silva (Richards 90’+); Agüero (Dzeko 89′)
Unused subs: Pantilimon, Clichy, Savic, Pizarro