[unable to retrieve full-text content]
Even a squad as sleek and polished as Manchester City cannot triumph unless they know how to grind their way to victory. They now lead the Premier League by two points because of a set-piece, with Joleon Lescott scoring the only goal of the game, from a corner-kick in the 63rd minute. Pragmatism was at the heart of City’s display, but they quaked towards the close when Carlos CuĂ©llar headed high when unmarked. Later still, Joe Hart made an outstanding save from Villa’s Darren Bent.
Nonetheless, the hosts mostly offered only resistance until boldness became obligatory once the deadlock was broken. Allowances can be made for largely conservative hosts in view of City’s prowess, but that does not account for the fact that Villa lie 15th in the table. Supporters will be relieved that their side are seven points above the relegation zone, yet also indignant that survival in the top flight is any sort of issue.
Alex McLeish, the manager under strain, may have felt a little more beleaguered by the loss of his defender Richard Dunne to a suspected dislocated shoulder near the end of the match. “He’s not going to be back for the next game, that’s for sure,” the Scot said. “It’s part of the bad luck we’ve been having recently. We’ve got a specialist in right now looking at him. I do believe he’s going to be out for at least a month.”
Where City are concerned, even absentees carry a little glamour. The forward Carlos Tevez is still estranged from the club since his apparent refusal to warm up as a substitute during the match with Bayern Munich in September. Roberto Mancini did not suggest that the relationship with Tevez is about to be mended, but neither did the manager give any sense of lingering conflict.
“It’s up to him,” said Mancini. “Carlos knows everything. We are here, we [City] didn’t change in these months. Carlos is a City player. I am there, Carlos knows. I spoke to him one week after Munich.” The topic, of course, rises close to the top of the agenda when goals look harder to come by for the club, but that in itself does nothing to mend the damage already done in this affair.
Ambition seems far more of a burden to City than an inspiration. Even if the thought is never spoken aloud, there must be a fear that an outstanding opportunity to win the title could yet be squandered by Mancini and his squad.
The City manager tried to play down the contribution of Hart towards the close of this match, probably because he would therefore have drawn attention to the strain his side were under towards the end. “When one player is young, he needs to work a lot,” said Mancini. “I think he improved a lot in the last three years, but he is only 24.”
McLeish, by contrast, had no hesitation in depicting the England goalkeeper Hart as one of the elite already. “Experience is only going to make him better and he’s already in the top five goalies in the world,” McLeish stated. Even so, Hart showed some of his worth by maintaining concentration when there was so little to do.
The hosts primarily had containment in mind. There has been a realisation that sides such as Villa, who find themselves low in the Premier League table, will have an obdurate and glum attitude, even though that does nothing to relieve the pressure on McLeish.
No one, all the same, expected anything other than prudence when neither side had scored. The Villa supporters, so long as the match was goalless, accepted such an outlook because of the means at City’s disposal. The LA Galaxy forward Robbie Keane, with his loan spell at Villa Park ending, had no opportunity to round off his stay with a flourish.
City, however, were almost as incapable. The strain seemed to tell when a forward of Sergio AgĂĽero’s accomplishment haplessly misdirected a free-kick from an angle in the 40th minute. In open play, City were pedantic, with too many studied passes when the need was for flicks and mercurial movement.
That frame of mind is understandable when so much is at stake, but the victors in the search for a Premier League title will surely be the line-up that still have self-expression in their moves. The obstacles, in fairness, were substantial, especially when an attacker of Emile Heskey’s build often looked like an additional right-back.
Villa shed some of their conservatism after the interval even before they had fallen behind. Just as City once again looked too dependent on David Silva to outclass the opposition, they decided the outcome with a set piece. The goal,with Gareth Barry heading back a James Milner corner for Lescott to hook home, was no spectacle but it delighted Mancini and his men.
The manager repeated an opinion he has aired before by being adamant that Manchester United “are still better than us”. It is an observation he can be happy to make when the League table still shows the Old Trafford club a little below City.