Verdict: Aston Villa 1 City 1
Goals: Dunne 15 for Villa, Bellamy 67 for City.
We feared Villa’s strength at set-pieces, just as we knew the law of ex-players scoring, and so it proved with Richard Dunne bagging the first goal. Yet the character and quality of this City side saw Craig Bellamy crash in an equaliser in a game that bore all the hallmarks of full-blooded English football.
The pace of the game, and energy expended by both sides was typical of how Mark Hughes and Martin O’Neill like to see their sides play. This was never a cagey affair, even if clear cut chances were few and far between.
City lined up as widely predicted, even if many people would have liked to see Petrov ahead of Wright-Phillips. Adebayor returned and Bellamy reverted to the left flank. De Jong and Barry provided the central midfield while Ireland had to settle for a place on the bench.
Villa made their intentions clear from the off and could have been ahead in the first minute. A neat flick from Agbonlahor failed to catch out Given at the near post as ball appeared to come back off the Irish keepers leg.
Much has been made of City’s vulnerability to set-pieces, and the City coaching staff neeed to shoulder some responsibility for allocating Barry to mark Dunne. That was clearly the error for the goal here, even if it did make sense to have Lescott marking Carew. Against sides such as Villa, there’s a need for Kompany and his aerial strength. Unfortunately this fixture came a couple of weeks to soon for the Belgian.
On the plus side, the presence of Zabaleta and improvement in Bridge saw a clear reduction in the number of crosses making their way into the Blues penalty area from open play. This is a big improvement on earlier in the season, particularly against an O’Neill side that like to make maximum use of James Milner and Ashley Young.
Milner is known for having a good engine, but he was left trailing by the energy expended by Bridge and Bellamy. The two City players were up and down the left flank all night, while Lescott was also getting across to cover our marauding full-back. Elsewhere the former Everton man ensured Carew had arguably his quietest game against us.
Up front the forwards didn’t quite gel, and better link-up play between Tevez and Adebayor might have caused more problems for Dunne and Collins. On a couple of occasions, Tevez lacked the pace to get away from defenders when played through.
Throughout the first half, the Argentine striker kept chancing his arm with long range shots. Eventually one was on target; Adebayor nearly deflecting it past Brad Friedel. The Togolese managed to get a header on target from a Barry free kick, though Friedel was able to turn the ball over without to much trouble.
At the close of the first half, Adebayor just failed to get on the end of a delightful inswinging cross from Barry, and it was clear that despite being behind City were far from out of the game.
City were once again a little slow to get going from the restart, but gradually pressed Villa back with the better quality of our passing. The introduction of Ireland for the hobbling of de Jong was helping in this regard.
Villa still maintained a threat and Dunne nearly had a second when again outjumping Barry at a corner. Thereafter Lescott was allocated the former City captain, but the damage had been done.
Just as Hughes was about to bring on Santa Cruz and Petrov, City scored. Wright-Phillips laid the ball off to Ireland, who played a perfectly weighted pass through to Adebayor. With the defence turned, the Togolese pulled the ball back for Bellamy to crash home.
Petrov returned to the bench while Santa Cruz came on for Tevez. It’s difficult to tell whether it was the equaliser or Santa Cruz that galvanised Villa a little, as City lost their previous dominance. The Paraguayan looked off the pace in a full-throttle fixture such as this, and one misplaced pass to our defence nearly proved costly.
Both sides sought victory, but were probably a little afraid of losing to a rival. Maybe that’s why Hughes left Wright-Phillips on till the end. Bringing on Petrov would undoubtedly have given us an additional threat, but the lack of defensive qualities in the Bulgarian, Santa Cruz, Adebayor and Ireland, may have prevented the manager taking that particular gamble.
In the latter stages, the tremendous energy expended caught up with both sides and passes began to go astray. Only Bellamy appeared immune from tiredness and his influence grew stronger. One surging run to the byline at the end was awesome.
“The City fans were fantastic.”
“In terms of their reaction to Dunney I wasn’t surprised because he was a fantastic player for Manchester City in good times and difficult times. The fans appreciate that and I was proud of their reaction.”
“It’s amazing how these things happen. I don’t have a celebration. If I score, it’s very surprising.
“I enjoyed my time at City and respect everyone there and I thought it was the right thing to do.”
“He is playing out of his skin at the moment.
“It doesn’t matter what position I use him in, he is still having a positive impact on the game and it was the same here.
“He is playing with great confidence. He always thinks he is the best player and most of the time he has been.”
Overall a draw was probably a fair result. The absence of European involvement had given both sides a full week to prepare for a testing fixture. If either side had played a draining Europa League match last week, they may well have lost this fixture. When O’Neill’s sides are up for it like this, Villa Park is a difficult venue, and coming away with a point is no mean result.
Villa proved they are able to give top teams a game, while City showed the ability of a top four side in getting something out of a game they would previously have lost. Going into the international break third in the league would have been fantastic, but fourth is still very good. There’s still everything to play for.
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