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May 7, 2014

Brewin: City hold nerve, keep title hopes in sight

MANCHESTER -- Here are three observations from Manchester City's 4-0 win against Aston Villa at the Etihad Stadium:

1. City hold their nerve

Patience was a virtue in short supply at the Etihad.

Manchester City fans were going through agony. Their team could not find the pass, or locate the luck to kill off a dogged defensive effort from Aston Villa. Liverpool fans were doubtlessly watching with hopes growing. Eventually, on 65 minutes, the moment came, and then a deluge. Liverpool must now rely on West Ham to beat City in Manchester on Sunday.

Salvation came via two goals delivered down the same route. David Silva played Pablo Zabaleta down the right-hand flank. Edin Dzeko did the rest. The only variation from second to first was Samir Nasri having a shot blocked before Dzeko poked in.

For the second time in four days, the Bosnian scored two goals to take City towards their crown. Just as in their 2011-12 campaign, he has proved vital in the run-in -- it was his equaliser that set up the 'Agueroooooooo' moment. He is surely now embedded in City legend.

City had to win in typically Mancunian weather on a downpour-soaked evening. They began damply, too. Despite having 80 percent of possession for the first 20 minutes, and their opponents not having a single attempt on goal, there were distinct heebie-jeebies.

Final passes were too heavy, while crosses sailed behind, rather than to teammates. There seemed a distinct lack of pace, too. When the ball arrived in the Villa area, chances were snatched. In the 40th minute, David Silva swung at fresh air after Zabaleta had at last carved out some space on the overlap.

Nasri was most wasteful when City finally overmanned the Villa defence, and James Milner's cross gave the Frenchman an open sight of goal. To hang out his right foot so limply and with such little conviction was desperately poor. The chance City had probed for all half had gone badly begging.

Manuel Pellegrini, usually so impassive, was suddenly revealing a hitherto rarely-seen Latin temperament. Gesticulating and imploring, the Chilean knew that his first title in European football was slipping if his team continued to play so listlessly. When Dzeko slotted the first, Pellegrini abandoned himself to a rare celebration, and enjoyed the second, too. Stevan Jovetic, introduced from the bench at a vital time scored and celebrated in maniacal shirt-off style. City could taste the champage.

Pellegrini was back to his calm self as Yaya Toure completed a belatedly-delivered rout with a solo run in added time. City are but one point away from glory.

2. What money can buy

With a squad so expensively assembled as to engage UEFA sanctions, the pre-season favourites have not exactly roared to the title. All the oil in Abu Dhabi cannot prevent injury to footballers.

That spinal quartet of Aguero, Silva, Toure and Kompany have played just 216 Premier League minutes together. Remove such a unit from any team and they would surely struggle. It says much for City's squad strength and indeed their resilience that they have got so close. Maybe it's just the money. The last of those suggestions may be most clung on to by the comparative paupers at Anfield, whose challenge has maintained on a fraction of the budget.

Aguero's muscular difficulties meant he was absent. He spent his evening stood at the edge of the tunnel, clad in civvies, shuffling foot to foot in worry. In all likelihood, his final contribution to City's challenge may end up being the equaliser he struck at Everton on Sunday.

Without him, City are not the killers that they were in the winter months before Aguero broke down. Dzeko was constantly overmanned by Villa's three men in central defence. On the bench sat Alvaro Negredo and Stevan Jovetic, two signings who have not lessened the burden on Aguero, or indeed the brooding Bosnian. Negredo has completely lost confidence and form after the shoulder injury he sustained when playing in the second leg of a League Cup semi that City had already won. Jovetic's campaign began with injury, and aside from a brief February flurry he had become something of a great lost signing.

On the hour, Jovetic was introduced, in place of Milner, who had previously been City's greatest threat from the right wing. Within five minutes, from that same right flank, Zabaleta had supplied first Dzeko's goal. Though he played no active part in the goal, Jovetic had given Villa's defence something else to think about.

And with two minutes to play, the Montenegrin made a more definite impact. Yaya Toure's sidefoot pass found him with space to bend in City's third. This was the type of thing he was bought for.

3. Villa's dour attempt to spoil the title race

Villa's lineup had scored 14 goals between them all season. Their first shot, in the 28th minute, was a miskick from Andreas Weimann, who would go closer four minutes later. It came from a spell on 30 minutes where the passing move put together received ironic cheers from the visiting fans. Manager Paul Lambert is in the fans' bad books after a season that failed to build on the promising signs shown in his team's rescue from relegation in 2012-13.

Even when free of the fear of the drop, Lambert's team played with rigid self-control. Admittedly, such tactics have been the key to survival all season. They have had to be, amid a season where they have won just three matches at home. With a change of ownership widely expected in the summer, with Randy Lerner widely expected to step aside next week, Lambert is not expected to survive. His team play as dourly as his brusque Glaswegian manner, and Villa fans had to derive enjoyment from their team's role as, yes, the villains of the piece. City fans and players exasperated at what they saw as timewasting tactics.

Once City had breached them, Lambert's gameplan was gone, and so were Villa. They may look completely different next season. On this evidence, they have to.