City back on top with textbook victory over lacklustre Villa

20120214-233356.jpg

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.

Teams

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

Advertisements

Uruguay 2-3 The Netherlands

The first of the semi-finals was a fairly tepid affair, strange considering that there were two stunning long-range finishes, a controversial goal and a surprising strike from Arjen Robben. All topped off with a very nervy end to the game.

Holland started brightly, with Dirk Kuyt being gifted an opportunity by the Uruguay ‘keeper, Fernando Muslera, in just three minutes, as he fumbled a harmless cross. Kuyt, however, blazed his shot over the bar.

Uruguay struggled to handle the Dutch crosses into the area early on, a frailty that Kuyt and Arjen Robben were all too happy to exploit.

But it was the sublime strike from Giovanni Van Bronckhorst with 18 minutes gone that will be remembered. He received the ball 40 yards from goal towards his familiar left-wing. After a quick look up, he laced it with power and precision into the distant top corner. Calls for goal of the tournament quickly flooded the social networks and the Dutch men were flying (sorry, I couldn’t help it).

Sadly, after that the pace of the game dropped as the Netherlands defended resolutely while Uruguay tried to gain a foothold in the match. Much of the Uruguayan possession though was harmless and was just plain sloppy in the final third.

Then up stepped Diego Forlan. The prolific Uruguay and Athletico striker jinked around inside the Dutch half before striding forward to unleash a strike with his wondrous left-foot that wavered in the air. Maarten Stekelenburg could only get a helpless hand to the ball before it nestled in the net.

Little else happened in the first half but the game remained open, giving the impression that more goals were to come in the second half.

After much ITV nonsense, we were back underway. Holland brought Rafael Van Der Vaart on during the break – the Real Madrid man replacing Demy De Zeeuw who took a nasty kick to the face in the first half.

The game sprung into live following a slow restart when a mix up in the Dutch defence saw Stekelenburg race off of his line needlessly. Following a poor tackle by the ‘keeper on Edinson Cavani the ball found its way to Alvaro Pereira, whose lobbed effort was cleared behind with ease by Van Bronckhorst.

The Dutch then huffed and puffed at the Uruguay defence but were unable to come up with an incisive move. Their defence continued to look shaky and leaky – not a good combination – and Uruguay appeared to be the more likely to score early on.

Then Holland began to show glimpses of that devastating counter-attack we were all treated to two years ago when, at Euro 2008, they continued their trend of being the best team to not win the tournament. But Uruguay got wise. La Celeste soon recovered from their excitement and reverted to the defensive football that, while being typical for them, still looks strange coming from a South American team.

Heavy pressure from Holland ensued but to no avail and Uruguay responded by playing a bit of keep-ball to reassure themselves that they deserved to be in the semi-final.

Another dirty challenge from the increasingly unpopular Marc Van Bommell allowed Forlan to display his almost unique grasp of the Jubilani ball, forcing a save low and to the right from Stekelenburg.

At the other end, the first clear chance of the second half finally arrived on the 68th minute. A neat interchange gave Van Der Vaart a point-blank opportunity that, following a good save from Muslera, fell kindly to Robben, Only for him to blaze over and show why Forlan’s gift is just that.

Then controversy turned the game – something that has dominated this World Cup.

A tame effort from Sneijder on the edge of the Uruguay box deflected off of two defenders, past (the fractionally offside) Robin Van Persie and Muslera, and into the bottom right corner. But it was Van Persie’s failed attempt to redirect the ball that made him an active and illegal participant in the goal. So, Uruguay undeservedly behind, but justice may have been served for Luis Suarez’s ‘save’ against Ghana.

A rare but well-taken headed goal from Arjen Robben added to Uruguay’s misery on the 73rd minute. A great cross from Dirk Kuyt was powered into the bottom left corner by Robben with all the prowess of a natural-born centre-forward.

The two-goal advantage gave the Dutch some breathing space to play the football we always expect from them, with Sneijder and Robben linking up particularly well on several occasions. Khalid Boulahrouz’s one-man-band defending only made this easier.

Sebastian Fernandez became the metaphorical towel as he was thrown in to the game in place of Uruguay’s talisman, Forlan. A poor effort from Robben and shoddy passes in the Uruguay area prevented Holland from making the score 4-1, but the game was fizzling out. Tomorrow night and Germany’s footballing delights could not come soon enough.

Then, on the 91st minute, the Uruguay right-back, Maxi Pereira, managed to make stoppage time more exciting than any other time in the game by slotting home a neat left-footed curler from the edge of the Dutch area. Uruguay commenced flooding Holland’s area with men and battered it with long passes from the back. One kind bounce could have popped the ball up for an opportunistic Uruguayan, bringing about an amazing end to normal time.

But it wasn’t to be.

The Netherlands go through to the World Cup final and guarantee that the trophy will return to Europe – the first time it has ever been won by a European side when the World Cup has been hosted outside of Europe.

It’s coming home…