Villa resistance broken by relentless City
For an hour, it was close. Not as a contest, not on the balance of play, but in terms of the scoreline, it was close. Villa's players worked, filled in the gaps, covered each other, marked tightly, and re-positioned themselves over and over again.
It wasn't enjoyable to watch, but it was disciplined and committed, and in terms of everything else at stake because of the result of this match, Villa have given the other contenders in the title race all due respect. The best chance Villa manager Paul Lambert's team had of sneaking a point, or three, however unlikely that was, was to stay in the game for as long as possible, and make Man City work for the result.
For 60-odd minutes, that's what Villa did. And then City broke the deadlock, and rattled in four goals by the final whistle.
There might be some flak coming Villa's way after this. "Parking the bus" has become this year's catchphrase for describing the unambitious tactic of sticking all ten outfield players behind the ball; when one of the world's most decorated coaches, in charge of one of the most expensively assembled squads in world football, chooses to do it, it's fair game.
When a team which mathematically avoided relegation just five days previously plays in the same way, away at the champions-elect, it's more out of necessity than choice, to be frank.
This match might have been the first time in a while that neutral fans had taken notice of Villa. If so, they might perhaps now understand the club's current situation a little more. Villa's starting line-up might have drawn gasps of horror from watching Liverpool supporters -- some of whom, it became apparent in the hours before the match, were expecting big things of Christian Benteke, oblivious to the fact the striker's season ended several weeks ago -- but the truth was that it was about as strong a starting XI as Lambert could muster.
Without long-term absentees Jores Okore and Libor Kozak as well as Benteke, further injuries to Gabby Agbonlahor and Marc Albrighton meant Lambert's hands were tied to a certain extent. He went, reasonably, with the same players who finished the victory over Hull. That group had earned the right to start at the Etihad, but it also highlighted what has been known for months -- this squad is short of top-class quality, and a few injuries is all it takes to emphasise the lack of strength in depth.
Lambert had pledged to try and win the game. All but the naive would have realised that his quote made for a media-friendly soundbite and nothing else. Having shipped four goals or more on the last three league visits to the stadium, Villa's priority was to make a game of it. They achieved that for three quarters of the encounter, until it all unravelled and they finished up beaten by four goals once more.
For the first 30 minutes, at least, the team's shape was a back five, with Matt Lowton and Ryan Bertrand defending deep rather than pushing on as wing-backs. The midfield three sat back and, more often than not, Jordan Bowery, making his first league start of the season, or Andreas Weimann, tucked in: a 5-4-1. Only occasionally did Villa advance forward and construct something positive; Bowery bounced a far post volley into the ground and a Weimann shot from distance rather than running at the City defence.
But really, what else were Villa supposed to do? Only the foolish, or the uber-talented, come to Manchester City and go toe-to-toe. Just over a year ago, Lambert fielded a very attacking side at Old Trafford in a game in which a victory for the hosts would have sealed the title; Villa were blown away within minutes.
The turning point on the night was arguably Man City manager Manuel Pellegrini's decision to withdraw the predictable James Milner and introduce Stefan Jovetic, not least because Pablo Zabaleta was then able to push forward to great effect. He stole in behind Bertrand to tee up Edin Dzeko, and once in the lead, City coasted clear.
Villa were unfortunate to see Weimann's header hit the underside of the crossbar and bounce just a shade on the wrong side of the line. The rest of the match served as a reminder as to why Lambert didn't choose to play a more expansive style, as the hosts enjoyed the opening spaces of a stretched Villa defence and guzzled up goals two, three and four.
The brightest moments in those closing stages for Villa were the appearances of two of the club's highest-rated youngsters; firstly Callum Robinson, continuing his recent series of performances, and then a senior debut for Jack Grealish. Socks rolled down, as is his wont, Grealish produced one lovely dummy on the left-hand touchline. That, alone, whets the appetite for what might be to come.
Strange to say, after a 4-0 loss, but it's hard to feel too despondent. Villa fans have become so accustomed to such defeats that another doesn't make much of a difference. A big summer, a defining summer, lies ahead. That's the hope, anyway.