Brittle Villa fall short again
Belief has not completely left this corner of B6, but it is understandably conditional at the moment. The roar from the Holte End as their team broke their huddle to stand in position for kick-off was hearty, a momentum carried on unbroken by Gabriel Agbonlahor, who scythed down Pablo Zabaleta with a zesty, late clip inside the first ten seconds of the game. By the time we had reached the interval, polite yet defeated applause filled the night air as their side trudged off to another deficit.
Aston Villa have never come back to take points in this Premier League season after being led at half-time, and that was a statistic that never really looked like changing against Manchester City. They were not terrible here, and early on it was as if being such distant second favourites was a liberation for Paul Lambert's men, as close to a freebie as one could conceive in their current situation.
On reflection, Lambert might rue an opportunity missed. This was not City at their most irresistible, even if they surmounted a sticky opening 25 minutes and thereafter intermittently threatened to fully impress their superior quality and overwhelm their lowly hosts. It was not hard to figure how they had gone into this game having scored 19 goals less than at the same stage last season.
Part of the answer is the relatively mute campaign of the imperious Sergio Aguero, on nine Premier League goals - a total he had mustered by late October last season when City steamrollered United on that surreal afternoon at Old Trafford. Carlos Tevez rose to fill the void created by his countryman's absence here, on one of those nights where he darted with purpose all over the pitch, both grafter and crafter, but even he only really began to shine when Edin Dzeko's entrance provided the pep he and City needed. That click into gear was partly affected by chance, with Dzeko replacing the unfortunate Jack Rodwell midway through the first period.
Rodwell had been the only one in black and grey to poke his head above the parapet in the opening exchanges, skewing a long-distance drive wide before forcing Brad Guzan to tip over his stinging drive. It was therefore especially sad to see the former Everton midfielder clutching at the back of his thigh minutes later, bringing his involvement to a premature end with what appeared to be a recurrence of the hamstring problems that have relentlessly stalked him. If this cameo represented his fledgling top-level career in microcosm, it could be said to be the same for City's season - not without its dazzle, but leaving us wholly unsatisfied. When Tevez gave City the lead in first-half stoppage time it was via a combination with Dzeko, with the former dribbling round Guzan to finish nervelessly after being fed by the latter. Ciaran Clark and Fabian Delph complained to referee Mike Dean that the Bosnian had fouled the dawdling Villa skipper in the build-up - but without any real conviction, in the manner of a child trying to scam any extra half-hour in front of the television before bed. It was a poor manner to allow one of the division's genuine powers to break them.
Nevertheless, it had been coming. The last ten minutes of the half had seen Villa suddenly under siege, a passage of play signalled when Zabaleta made a trademark run inside before Guzan superbly tipped his shot onto the inside of a post and away. The returning (and well-received) James Milner then hurried a shot wastefully over as Villa criminally nodded off, before Guzan again looked sharp to deny Tevez and Dzeko in quick succession. At the first sign of City showing their admittedly considerable teeth, the home side had curled up into themselves.
It was a melancholic fade from the game's rollocking first knockings, in which Villa had shown enterprise and brio. Young Joe Bennett made consistent inroads on the left, linking with Agbonlahor, while Delph buzzed with intent behind. He is one member of this oft-callow side who never lacks bravery, even if his tackling frequently wanders into the territory of the injudicious. It was a stray hand that cost him here - much to his chagrin - as he picked up a tenth booking of the season after palming the ball away from Dzeko in the dying moments. The midfielder will now be suspended for the undeniably pivotal encounters with Reading and QPR, and Villa will miss him.
Delph provided a notable piece of second-half attacking threat for his side, with a slalom past three City players rousing a resigned crowd to life in a passage of play that ended with Andreas Weimann volleying a rare second-half glimmer of goal high into the Holte. Villa had attempted to react after the break but Christian Benteke's firm 21st minute header, repelled by Tevez, stationed on Joe Hart's right-hand post, remained their only attempt on target.
By the time City had been regularly warming Guzan's hands, Benteke had become a speck in the distance to his retreating teammates, with the team's star left isolated. The rapid move to introversion betrays a fragile confidence, with moments of promise and glaring basic errors set bumper to bumper like cars in a traffic jam.
One shouldn't overlook City's role in this of course. They cannot be blamed for the fact that they rarely needed to hit second gear to assert their dominance. Nor are these three points merely anecdotal to them of course, even if the title has disappeared in a puff of smoke. They have so gradually drifted from United's relentless pace at the top that it was a surprise to be reminded that Tottenham had closed the gap to just two points on the champions at the start of play. The reality was that Villa faced their Snowdon, with City's visit pitting the Premier League's tightest defence against its second most puny attack. More suitable challenges lie ahead for both of these sides.