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Boro must capitalise at Stoke


Listless Villa repeat lack of ambition

As uprisings go, the Aston winter proved very different to the Arab Spring. A group of Alex McLeish's most vocal critics complained before kick-off but, if it was not the popular protest to unseat a disliked leader, one Villa supporter did succeed in landing a telling blow on an increasingly beleaguered manager.

Born in Birmingham and a Villa fan, Joleon Lescott scored the goal that extended his boyhood club's winless home run. It now stands at a miserable seven games and represents Villa's worst sequence of results at their supposed stronghold for a quarter of a century. There is no real rebellion, but it has been a winter of discontent nonetheless.

Even an attempt to overshadow the anti-McLeish activists backfired. The club were proactive in giving supporters giant foam hands as they entered the ground. As Lescott celebrated the goal that took Manchester City back to the Premier League summit, some provided an image for the photographers, providing a thumbs down to give their verdict on McLeish.

With a team bereft of ambition and invention, it fell to the fans to provide the entertainment. One obliged by streaking and side-stepping his way past a series of stewards on a run that displayed far more pace and dynamism than most of McLeish's players. Unlike several of them, he even entered Joe Hart's penalty area. "Sign him up," chorused the Holte End. It might have been Brummie humour, but it could have been footballing advice.

Because, while the financial gulf between City and Villa has to be acknowledged and there is no disgrace in losing to the league leaders, the shame came from the performance and approach. Villa were as unambitious as they were away at Tottenham and at home against Manchester United and Liverpool. This completed a quartet of dull, drab displays that indicated they did not contemplate winning the game, let alone attempt to.

The recent experiment with attack was abandoned, 2-2 and 3-2 scorelines consigned to the past and two creative players banished to the bench. There was a hint of the political about both decisions, with Stephen Ireland having sworn at McLeish in last week's defeat to Newcastle and Charles N'Zogbia declaring, in a quickly-deleted tweet, that he wasn't enjoying his football. Such sentiments are understandable, but Villa are all the poorer for the absence of imagination.

There has long been the sense it ranks low on McLeish's list of priorities. "We were never going to go gung-ho against City," he said. "We don't have the players to do that." The loss of Ashley Young and Stewart Downing last summer, compounding the departures of James Milner and Gareth Barry in previous years, has ensured that, but it does not excuse the negativity. Rather than progress, Emile Heskey almost played as a second right-back, shielding Alan Hutton. It was an exercise in futile labour that left him looking like Animal Farm's Boxer, ready for the knacker's yard.

A supposed striker rarely advanced. Nor did his colleagues. It was like watching McLeish's Birmingham at their least daring, not Martin O'Neill's more cavalier Villa. "We concede only one chance," said Roberto Mancini. It was not much of an exaggeration. For 87 minutes, all his hosts mustered was three Richard Dunne headers, all after corners. Then an unmarked Carlos Cuellar spurned a glorious chance, heading over, and Joe Hart managed a terrific save to repel Darren Bent's overhead kick. All of which prompted the question of what might have happened had Villa attacked earlier.

"I think you're a bit unfair there," responded McLeish. "I can't fault the players on their performance or their application. They are the unluckiest team in the league this weekend." If that raised eyebrows so did the suggestion that their gameplan and display resembled Everton's when David Moyes' men, in a titanic team effort, overcame City.

Similarities seem few and far between, not least because Everton defended brilliantly while Villa, as they often do, conceded from a corner. Milner took it and Barry met it, two men for whom City sent £38 million to the Midlands, before Lescott finished from close range.

So, while the pre-match demonstrations were comparatively subdued, the remonstrations began. Villa have recent memories of being in the top third of the table, but now find themselves in the bottom six. The supporters stayed with their side during the game but if some are revolting, they have legitimate grievances.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Joleon Lescott - It was a day for City's solid citizens and, while Villa should have tested Lescott and Vincent Kompany more, the central defenders were excellent. So, in front of them, was Barry.

ASTON VILLA VERDICT: It says something that the valiant Dunne was their major attacking weapon and it must be a cause of concern that the Irishman is out for a minimum of a month after injuring his shoulder. His compatriot Robbie Keane played his final game before returning to Los Angeles Galaxy, which leaves Villa looking still more dreary. They should not go down but this is shaping up to be a distinctly underwhelming season.

MANCHESTER CITY VERDICT: Mancini lamented his side's inability to score more goals and Sergio Aguero had an off-day in the penalty area, though he led the line with verve. The good news for City is that Mario Balotelli served the final game of his suspension while the Toure brothers are due back from Africa. Carlos Tevez may even return, too, to judge by the hints from his camp. And should he apologise, Mancini will consider him again. That, however, has been the position for four months. "Carlos knows everything," said the manager. But it can take some South American strikers time to say sorry.


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