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Sep 16, 2007

Johnson a symbol of Sven's new City

Manchester City 1 - 0 Aston Villa

Welcome back, Stuart. As Manchester City's former manager returned to his old club, Sven-Goran Eriksson's team supplied reminders of Stuart Pearce's regime, before emphasising the differences between the recent past and the present.

Eriksson enabled his predecessor to see a couple of old acquaintances by selecting Darius Vassell and Emile Mpenza. They, in turn, demonstrated why Pearce is no longer City manager. Memories of distinctly depressing statistics resurfaced during a sterile first half

Then Michael Johnson, given a debut by Pearce but promoted to the status of an automatic choice by Pearce, illuminated the game with a terrific winner that was the product of technical excellence and sharp thinking. For those who like to overdose on statistics, Johnson now has two-thirds of the league goals City have scored at home since New Year's Day. Two, to be precise.

That, once again, reflects upon poor Pearce. Whereas he would have been drenched on the touchline in the Manchester rain, Eriksson retreated to the comparative comfort of his seat for the majority of the match. Animation is out and calm is in.

That will be applauded by those who felt Pearce's antics were a distraction.

Now they can focus on a league table that shows City as the only interlopers in the top five otherwise populated by familiar faces. To labour a point, that represents another radical alteration in City's fortunes.

Nor is their shape the same. If reasons - cost prominent amongst them - abound why Elano was not recruited before Eriksson's arrival, it is impossible to conceive of him in Pearce's team. Charged with conducting operations in the final third by the Swede, his quest for the perfect pass produced one first-half opening, when Scott Carson denied Johnson with a smart save.

Then, in the third minute of the second half, he supplied Johnson with another inventive ball. The teenager burst pass the sliding Martin Laursen and accelerated beyond Nigel Reo-Coker to place his shot past Carson.

'He's an all-round midfielder,' purred Eriksson. 'His speciality you cannot say - is it attacking, defending, shooting, passing, because he can do all these things and that is very rare for a young man.'

The goal capped another accomplished display by Johnson. His central midfield partner was influential, too. Dietmar Hamann appeared an uninspired signing by Pearce but confirmed his renaissance under Eriksson with a tidy display. Unsuited to the role of the all-action midfielder these days, his assurance in his sphere of influence was important.

'I am positively surprised about Hamann,' admitted Eriksson. 'He seems to be younger and younger. He is getting better and better every game. His football brain is much, much more than [that of] a normal player.'

From the heights of second place, Eriksson could joke: 'I should be very happy if the league was finished.'

Yet, despite their lofty status, City should not get carried away. Though Eriksson unconvincingly suggested, 'he's as good as he was when he played for England,' Vassell's performance on the right flank indicated why Stephen Ireland, he of the two living grandmothers, is required at Fulham on Saturday. Meanwhile, the cost of the injury to Valeri Bojinov is hard to evaluate, given his brief taste of Premier League football, but, as they did last season, City still seem to require a striker.

If Rolando Bianchi enjoys Eriksson's full confidence, the manager has a strange way of showing it. The Italian was demoted to the bench, briefly emerging to have an injury-time shot cleared off the line.

At the other end, Kasper Schmeichel kept a fourth clean sheet of the season.

But, when it was pointed out that the young Dane is unconvincing against the high ball, Eriksson grinned: 'But as long as he gets away with it, I am happy.

His father got away with a lot of things as well. Maybe it is in the family.' As Eriksson admitted his compatriot Andreas Isaksson had been fit for three weeks, it prompted the question of his continued exclusion, despite an outstanding defensive record.

Indeed, City owed their latest shut-out, in part, to John Carew, who was guilty of a succession of misses. The lanky Norwegian's sole effort on target was hooked off his own line by Elano.

It followed a corner by Gareth Barry. In this version of Friends Reunited, the Aston Villa captain, an overnight sensation almost a decade into his career, came up against the manager who gave him a mere 14 minutes of international football in five-and-a-half years.

If Barry has been the best-kept secret in the Midlands for several seasons, Villa's frequent mediocrity helped keep him hidden. His set pieces posed City problems today, too, but his excellence was overshadowed by the result.

So Eriksson did not have belated cause to regret his previous decisions to ignore Barry. But, as City reflected upon their past in Pearce's presence, they must have done so with a sense that the present is altogether preferable

MAN OF THE MATCH: Elano - Made one and saved one with his goal-line clearance from Carew, though his influence extended beyond those incidents at either end.

CITY VERDICT: The results are outstanding, but the performances have been less so. City won't complain, but the league table flatters them now.

VILLA VERDICT: When it was suggested to Martin O'Neill that Villa were unlucky to lose, his honesty was endearing. 'The truth is that we didn't do enough. We should create more.' Yet his major concern should be the form of Carew, yet to score for Villa this season.

PERFECT TIMING: Hindsight can make fools of us all, but, had City known what would transpire this week, they presumably would not have chosen Stephen Ireland for the main interview in the match programme. The phrase 'I haven't had a lot of schooling' surprised few observers of his week, however.

SMILE FOR THE CAMERA: As Eriksson and Micah Richards collected their August awards as the Manager and Player of the Month respectively, the winning duo and the representative from Barclays were joined by a fourth face. Clearly Thaksin Shinawatra's award as Chairman of the Month had passed this observer by.


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