City self-destructive streak surfaces
Manchester City are driving their drenched manager to distraction and disputes. From Madrid to Manchester, Roberto Mancini's side have lost leads and now their place in the Capital One Cup.
An addiction to entertainment turned into a costly carelessness as Gabriel Agbonlahor's brace condemned City to a 4-2 defeat and a second successive Tuesday setback. They have sieved 18 goals in nine games as a self-destructive streak has surfaced. Sympathy is likely to be in short supply but these are the trials and tribulations of a £153 million team and their frustrated, fractious manager.
As Aston Villa excelled to claim a deserved win, Mancini's continual tinkering, from 3-4-1-2 to 4-4-2 to 4-2-4, betrayed the impatience of a manager who expected better and did not want extra-time, let alone defeat in it. He spent the last 10 minutes of the regulation 90 arguing with Paul Lambert when the Villa manager seemed to accuse his City counterpart of trying to get Joe Bennett booked.
"I am tired of some managers because I didn't say anything to him," Mancini argued, saying he had not waved an imaginary yellow card. "I asked only if it was a yellow card without moving my hands. I only asked the fourth official. It is better some managers shut up. I don't like their behaviour."
It was the latest in a line of touchline altercations involving Mancini. "Maybe because I am Italian," he said, asked why rivals start rows with him. Not that he looked it: a sodden figure at the edge of his technical area, Italian chic was abandoned for the drowned rat look more familiar to Mancunians. If Mancini lacked his usual aesthetic appeal, he team looked worse. Indeed, it was a £153 million second-string side, featuring 10 changes. It would have been a full set had Jack Rodwell not been injured in the warm-up, with Joleon Lescott taking his place.
Their price tags and their pedigree remove the usual excuses available to weakened teams. Mancini summoned substitutes who cost a further £34 million but to no avail. Villa, more convincing and coherent, secured their biggest victory of Lambert's brief reign. They wore a ludicrous lime kit, but the green shoots of recovery are evident after a traumatic year at Villa Park. "They deserve to go through," conceded Mancini. "We didn't play well."
Opportunities were given to the understudies, but few grasped them. Abdul Razak and Denis Suarez, the reserve-team Yaya Toure and David Silva respectively, found it harder to emulate the illustrious regulars on the major stage. Kolo Toure was troubled by the sheer speed of Agbonlahor. Gareth Barry lost the midfield battle to Karim El Ahmadi.
City contrived to take a lead their performance did not merit. Mario Balotelli scored his first goal since he destroyed Germany in the semi-finals of Euro 2012, finishing unmarked from James Milner's cross. Balotelli won the free kick for City's second goal, dispatched expertly by Aleksandar Kolarov, without suggesting he should move up a position in the striking pecking order.
But City are unable to keep clean sheets - "this is the problem," lamented Mancini - and their other scorer contributed to the visitors' tally. Scorer of 52 Villa goals during 12 years in the team, Barry added a 53rd three years after his departure. When Costel Pantilimon pushed Andreas Weimann's cross out, the midfielder managed to volley it into the unguarded net. "Barry is a Villa fan," chorused the travelling Midlanders after he provided their first equaliser.
But if the goal was fortunate, the outcome was not. Villa had been the superior side at 0-0 and rallied again after Kolarov struck. Agbonlahor exchanged passes with Christian Benteke and beat Costel Pantilimon. And, while Carlos Tevez clipped the bar in the 89th minute, Agbonlahor allied his sprinter's speed with the stamina to make a mark in extra-time.
Villa went ahead when Benteke flicked on Shay Given's goal kick for Agbonlahor to advance on goal. Pantilimon blocked his shot but Charles N'Zogbia scored the rebound. Victory was sealed when an Agbonlahor shot deflected in off substitute Jeremy Helan. Without a goal since January, he had two at the Etihad. "It is unfair to praise any individual; I thought the whole team were fantastic," said Lambert. "It's a massive result for us."
He downplayed his disagreement with Mancini. "I don't have a problem," the Scot said. On this evidence, Mancini has plenty.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Gabriel Agbonlahor - With Lambert's appointment and the arrival of Benteke, this could be a make-or-break year for the long-serving Agbonlahor, especially after a disappointing campaign last year. This was a fine way to go about changing his fortunes, ending a 17-game goal drought with a dynamic display on the left wing.
MANCHESTER CITY VERDICT: Disappointing. The men who enhanced their reputations were the ones who sat the game out. While City had played Arsenal 48 hours earlier, which accounted for the substitution of Lescott, it does not explain their lacklustre display in the first hour. They rallied at the end of normal time, with Tevez and Edin Dzeko particularly prominent, but far better will be required to win at Fulham on Saturday.
ASTON VILLA VERDICT: Excellent. There were positives for Lambert all over the pitch. While he missed a couple of early chances, Benteke had a real nuisance value in attack. Weimann was played out of position on the right but prospered while captain Ron Vlaar made some vital interceptions at the back. After the 4-1 defeat to Southampton it was, Lambert said, "a brilliant response". The manager also confirmed that Stephen Ireland, who did not play, has a broken wrist.
COME IN NO. 62: In one respect, it may have been a record-breaking substitution when Jeremy Helan came on for Razak as No. 61 replaced No. 62.