Verdict: Manchester City 3 Aston Villa 1
Goals: Tevez pen 41, Adebayor 43mins, Bellamy 89 for City. Carew 16 for Villa.
City set up a huge game against Tottenham on Wednesday with an excellent victory over Aston Villa. It was never easy after conceding the first goal, but the team showed great character to come through with three points.
After watching the midweek European action with Inter, Barca and er Fulham, this match had City showing the qualities of all three. For forty minutes we were like Barca, dominating possession against a strong defence, without looking like making the breakthrough.
Then two quick goals had us demonstrating the Roy Hodgson view of ‘keep playing your football and the rewards will come’. The second half had us defending a lead like Mourinho’s Inter, though thankfully without all the gamesmanship and time wasting.
As expected, Gareth Barry wasn’t fit, so Adebayor came into the starting line-up as we reverted to 4-4-2. One of the main concerns was whether a midfield of Vieira and de Jong would be strong enough against Villa. Thankfully Patrick went on to have his best game for the club, particularly during the first half when he dominated the midfield. There weren’t the forward runs of old, but we were treated to physical dominance of the opposition, followed by quickly released passes to our attacking players.
Villa were penned back and relying on an excellently organised defence to keep us out. What shots we could manage were blocked in trademark fashion by Dunne and co. In contrast the goal we conceded felt incredibly soft.
Villa were allowed to take a free-kick quickly, Bridge let Downing run at him, and Toure wasn’t tight enough on Carew. Fulop’s lack of reactions reminded everyone just how good Shay Given is. Mancini turned away in disgust, and it felt like a potentially devastating blow.
At the other end Villa continued a better demonstration of the art of defending. There were a couple of penalty shouts, but nothing convincing. Tevez dropping deep ensures he is involved, as does Adebayor drifting wide. It gives opponents something to think about, but doesn’t leave us with many options in the box when a cross eventually goes over.
With frustration in the air, Johnson was released down the flank, and fortune smiled on us for the next couple of minutes. First Warnock slipped, then in trying to regain his ground stretched to tackle and only succeeded in clipping Johnson’s heel. The defender’s head in hands expression removed any doubt it was a penalty.
Next, Tevez’s penalty was poorly placed, but powerful enough to fly under Friedel. When Toure again allowed Carew to get a shot away, it flew back off the bar and we were straight down the other end scoring our second.
After being released by Vieira, Johnson showed his composure in holding the ball up, drawing the defenders, then picking out Adebayor, whose shot also went dangerously close to Friedel.
To turn the game around like this shows the quality of our attacking play when we commit people forward. Villa had looked solid but we were able to break them down. The second half became a question of whether they could do the same to us.
This is the key difference between the teams of Hughes and Mancini. Under the Italian our greater organisation at the back enables us to close games out. Nowhere better is this seen than at set pieces and despite having a nervous new goalkeeper, no corners or free-kicks caused undue problems.
Zabaleta showed greater composure and didn’t give away needless free-kicks. His was a heroic performance that sets up a fascinating contest against Gareth Bale on Wednesday night.
On the other side, Wayne Bridge was a greater concern as he repeatedly failed to get close to Ashley Young in the second half. A significant improvement will be required against David Bentley or Aaron Lennon.
When Micah Richards was waiting to come on, there was a case for him going to right-back and Zabaleta moving across to replace Bridge. Despite being on his wrong side the Argentine might make our best left-back on Wednesday.
Our defensive solidity during the second period wore Villa down, with Milner looking frustrated at the lack of openings. City were initially failing to capitalise on the break but, as time ticked by, the gaps widened, and eventually Wright-Phillips went on a dazzling run taking him away from Collins. A neatly poked pass to Bellamy gave the Welshman time to pick his spot and the game was over.
The embrace between Mancini and Kidd said it all. The tension of defending a single goal lead was released, and it was good to see Bellamy go over to Mancini after scoring. That might keep quiet stories of him being set to leave for a couple of days.
As the players took the applause at the final whistle, it was noticeable that Toure went over to congratulate Fulop. Such acts mark out Kolo as a top guy and a genuine team person.
With an entourage from Abu Dhabi watching in the stands, this was a good day for Mancini. Even if we don’t finish fourth, his chances of remaining manager were surely improved by this result.
When we played Villa away, the game was very stretched and played at full pelt in a traditional English manner. Here, once in front, we were always conscious of Villa’s strength on the break and didn’t allow ourselves to be drawn out.
The result justified Mancini’s balanced approach between attacking and defending, and even his signing of Patrick Vieira looked a good deal. The veteran Frenchman outshone current pundits favourite James Milner in the middle of the park.
“We wanted a final this season and now we have a final. It is our most important game of the year and we need all our players to be strong. It will be tough but we want to win it.”
On this showing, Vieira would be selected ahead of Barry for the Tottenham match, with the main concern being his ability to perform twice in a week. If Bridge can improve on this showing in the same way that Vieira improved on his performance at Arsenal, then an unchanged side will be our best bet against Tottenham.
This felt like a fantastic victory at the end. Another on Wednesday would be even better. Many pundits are making Spurs the favourites, but that’s ok, our Serie A style manager may surprise a few people by once again setting the team up to get the result he needs.