The 2010-11 version of the FA Cup has been a competition where Manchester City have seemed to progress by standing still.
With every rival eliminated, with each favourable draw, the prospect of a belated addition to one of football's dustiest transfer cabinets has grown. By actually advancing in their own right, it was enhanced, yet from Reading's redoubtable defence to Aston Villa's obdurate manager, others have furthered City's cause twice in as many days.
An obstacle course now seems to have rather smaller hurdles. Only Reading, rather than their betes noire, Everton, separate them from a first Wembley appearance in the FA Cup for 30 years. Tuesday's upset at Goodison Park was followed by an unapologetic Eastlands exit. Error-prone in defence and depleted by decision-making that has acquired controversy in the Midlands, Villa proved accommodating visitors.
Given the fixture congestion Roberto Mancini so regularly bemoans, progress could be called survival of the fittest. More accurately, it may be the survival of, well, the survivors. As Arsenal and City completed the quarter-final line-up, ostensibly the latter's hardest tie to date became their easiest. It took two games apiece to see off Leicester and Notts County, but 25 minutes to eliminate Villa. An alternative interpretation is that they were beaten an hour before kick-off when the teamsheets were handed in.
Gerard Houllier would dispute that. Yet, by making eight changes, the 2001 FA Cup winner reduced his chances of a repeat. If the nadir of his Villa reign came at Eastlands in December, a second visit didn't amount to a huge improvement.
Seemingly shrinking into his coat during the game, Houllier came out of his shell afterwards. "I started the game with three internationals up front," he said. "Nathan Delfouneso is an Under-21 international, Emile Heskey went to the World Cup and Gabby Agbonlahor was called up by Fabio Capello for the last game. In midfield we also have three internationals, whether it is from Bulgaria, the [United] States or Scotland. The two centre-backs were Ireland internationals. The two full-backs, [Chris] Herd has been called up for Australia and [Fabian] Delph has been called up for the Under-21s."
Ashley Young and Stewart Downing, architects of Satuday's demolition at Blackburn, were not summoned from the bench until City led by three goals, but Houllier argued: "I don't think they would have done anything to avoid the first goal." His conclusion was defiant. "If I had to do it, I'd do it again," he added. "I don't think today we could have beaten Manchester City." They did five weeks ago, though.
The precedent for Villa managers fielding their reserves in a knock-out competition is not encouraging: some felt the beginning of the end for Martin O'Neill came when he took the 'stiffs' to Moscow. The Ulsterman was pursuing a top-four finish then; a fear of relegation, Houllier said, accounted for his decision.
His side were behind after five minutes courtesy of an opportunistic finish from Yaya Toure. The midfielder was patrolling the six-yard box when Aleksandar Kolarov took a corner. Patrick Vieira met it with a near-post header that hit Ciaran Clark and landed invitingly for the Ivorian. "A very cheap goal," Houllier said.
In a City side where, besides the five regular defenders, Toure was one of two others who has spent a portion of his career at the back and who also incorporated a defensive midfielder, in Patrick Vieira, his attacking efforts were invaluable.
Scorer turned supplier when Toure landed a pass behind the visitors' defence, Mario Balotelli ran away from the Villa centre-backs with almost embarrassing ease and seemed to cushion his finish into the top corner. "A fantastic goal," Mancini added.
Balotelli's penchant for controversy remains intact. His 15 City games have produced 10 goals and nine bookings. Mark Clattenburg, whose definition of an elbow has appeared faulty in recent days, cautioned the Italian when he caught Herd. The case for the defence was led by Houllier. "I don't think it was a sending off," the Villa manager added. "I don't think he did it on purpose." Nevertheless, Mancini promptly substituted his compatriot before he could be sent off.
David Silva, with a crisp low drive, completed the scoring. Reading beckon for City and unpleasant reading for Houllier, should he peruse the comments of the Villa fans about his team selection.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Yaya Toure - A complete midfield performance from the Ivorian. A goal and an assist were accompanied by some powerful bursts and some composed passing.
MANCHESTER CITY VERDICT: It was a more clinical and convincing performance than the flat display City produced in Sunday's 1-1 draw with Fulham. It is no coincidence that the classy Silva returned; others - Toure and Pablo Zabaleta in particular - appeared to benefit. Carlos Tevez was rested for the first hour as Balotelli, used on the wing recently, appeared to enjoy an outing as the main striker.
ASTON VILLA VERDICT: A three-goal defeat may have been harsh but, though Emile Heskey drew one save from Joe Hart and Gabriel Agbonlahor fashioned a couple of openings, they threatened too little. On his first start, the on-loan American Michael Bradley was tidy on his first start but, beyond sparing his preferred players for Saturday's trip to Bolton, there were few other obvious benefits for Houllier.