Man City (2) vs Aston Villa (0) – Villa Come Close to Winning

Villa fans were unsure what to expect when their team ran out onto Etihad field and into torrential Manchester rain. It was not the awful weather that was most disturbing, it was more the long, three-week, coronavirus-imposed quarantine period that disrupted preparation for the game. Would they be totally match-fit, especially facing the red-hot Man City who had reeled-off eight wins in a row and were eying regaining the top spot in the Premier League, even if only for a day.

Still, those fans would have been reassured by seeing the Villa line-up. None of the stars had been held back and, in his first game since November, Ross Barkley was in the starting eleven. This was indeed a calculated risk taken by manager Dean Smith given Barkley’s propensity for injuries and his lack of any recent game-time, not even as a substitute.

No doubt Smith would have wanted to put his best out there, if only to maximize the difference from the line-up he fielded the last time these two teams met, when City ran roughshod over the Claret and Blues, 6 to 1, at Villa Park last January. Being able to insert a player, Barkley, still at his best, for Danny Drinkwater, plus Martinez, Cash, Ollie Watkins, and Traore, all off-season acquisitions, made a statement. This was not the same team and the 26 points earned from 15 games this season to date was no fluke.

The strategy seemed sound despite the large imbalance of possession from the get-go. When De Bruyne found Rodri, the Spanish International, with a corner that he was able to head back towards Martinez’s left post for an on-rushing Bernardo Silva, alarm bells went off for the visitors, but there was no panic. Martinez scooted over and used his ample frame to smother the snapshot and before Sterling could even move for a tap-in, Cash and Mings converged to clear the danger, the former getting their first. Martinez’s reaction set the tone. Instead of appearing anxious at the close escape, he smiled brightly and clapped his mitts as if to say. “bring it on, that was fun.” There was only three minutes on the clock.

Indeed, the City boys did bring it on. The midfield trio of De Bruyne, Rodri, and Gundogan is arguably the strongest in the game and made it all but impossible for Villa’s Luiz and McGinn to gain a foothold. This led to multitude of insertions down their left wing where Cancelo, Gundogan, and Foden took turns running at, or through, Matty Cash who lacked robust defensive support from Traoré. When then they did break through, though, they were thwarted by Ezri Konsa who has the knack of always being in the right spot or sent dangerous-looking crosses through the crease to their absent striker (Bernardo Silva playing a false 9).

When they did find de Bruyne or Rodri available on the edge of the area, Villa’s well-organized defense invariably blocked their shots, or Martinez dealt with what came through. Meanwhile, De Bruyne and Sterling had little success against Targett and Grealish. In fact, this game was probably Targett’s best defensive performance since he put on a Claret shirt.

Meanwhile, the strategy paid off in terms of counter-attack threat. Despite all the pressure, the Villa players were calm in possession and always attempted to play out from defense. As early as the 10th minute, Watkins and Barkley broke out on their left with only two City defenders back and then Grealish saw the opportunity and sped up the right, apparently unnoticed. Watkins dragged his defender further left. A pass from Barkley would have left his captain one-on-one with Edelson. A moment’s hesitation was all it took for the opportunity to be lost. A game-sharp Barkley likely would have made that pass.

Rather than show frustration, Grealish demonstrated by example. In the 27th minute he drew three defenders to him in his favorite (left) corner of the penalty area. While the attention prevented him any opportunity to shoot, it allowed Traore to slip in behind the defenders where magic Jack found him with room to shoot. The elusive winger’s decision to immediately shoot at the near post was a good one given the speed and anticipation of City’s defense. If not for the saturated conditions that shot might have added to the Burkinabe international’s recent tallies. As it was, it hit the side-netting. That was in the 27th minute. Ten minutes later, a similar Grealish possession was teed-up for Barkley, but the Chelsea loanee could not wrap his foot around the ball enough to find the far upper corner and the shot did not leave the ground. Ederson did an excellent job of getting down to get his body behind the hard shot and to gather it in before it became a tap-in for Watkins.

In between time, Grealish exhibited a recent development – a touch of class. When Kyle Walker bundled into the Villa captain as he jumped to head the ball, he left the Villan in a heap and loudly irate. That changed quickly when Grealish realized that his fellow England player had injured himself. He quickly consoled the former-Villan and did the same when Walker had to leave the game ten minutes later. A few years back, there would more likely have been sparks than concern. Perhaps, it’s the pandemic. Whatever the reason, it was good to see. Meanwhile, Zinchenko came on for Walker but went to his natural left-back spot while Cancelo switched to his favored right-back spot).

The game continued at a torrid pace with City piling up their stats (e.g., 16 corners in total), but their body-language suggested that this was a rope-a-dope exercise that would end when the aggressor ran out of steam.

Even so, for their fans, it was good to reach halftime with Villa looking comfortable. On reflection, it was evident that the Villa backline had bent, but not broken. Martinez and Mings both exuded confidence and that permeate the whole squad. Not only that, but they had also done enough to feel that, as solid as City’s backline was, chances had come and would continue to come.

Such a chance came just over five minutes into the second half. From another rebuffed City corner, an alert Martinez hustled to get the ball downfield to Traore who had caught City’s defensive backline out of position and was running clear. The kick was on the way before the Villa winger had crossed the halfway line and only De Bruyne had seen the danger. With the Belgian star racing to get himself into Traore’s path, he could only watch as Traore trapped the ball on the outside of his left boot and simultaneously, turned De Bruyne inside-out with his change of direction. De Bruyne was hoisted on his own petard and did what his victims frequently do, he fell down head-first. Fortunately, one of his sprawling legs touched the ball, enough for Traore to have to slow to gather.

Traore continued his race towards the penalty area with Zinchenko closing in. He chose to shoot with no backswing and, against most other keepers would have scored. The quick release, with his favored left foot, still had plenty of power, curve, and direction, as it headed towards the very far corner. Edison is in the upper echelon at his position and he managed to get two strong hands to the shot to keep it out.

As play continued, Villa held their own and it was City who went to their sub bench first, in the 58th minute. When it was announced that De Bruyne was coming off (and De Jesus replacing him) it became obvious that he was uncomfortable (it turned out to be a hamstring strain).

The next close call came ten minutes later when Watkins gained possession from a ricochet in the City penalty area and was able to expose Cancelo’s defensive weakness as he rounded him at the goal line and put over a brilliant cross aimed towards Barkley who was already in the 6-yard box. Ruben Dias who was the last scorer against City at the Etihad was in the difficult position of having to intercept while facing his own goal. He did so by sliding into the path of the ball. Fortunately for him, this time it did not lead to an own goal, but it was almost an assist as the ball rebounded perfectly for Traore who volleyed only for the ball to ricochet off two defenders before leaving the penalty area right to the feet of Douglas Luiz who hit a blast so strong that Ederson did not dare do anything other than rebuff with two clenched fists. This time the ball found a light blue shirt and the danger had passed.

The danger re-emerged at the other end of the field within a minute. Foden set-up Gundogan right in front of goal only for Mings to anticipate the shot aimed at the corner and moved to block it. Konsa swept the ball away for a corner. From the corner, it was Gundogan again with his head directing the ball down to the corner of the net only for Martinez to get down and smother. With ball between his legs and not yet in his grasp, Stones managed to forage the ball loose and it came spinning to Gundogan who took a moment to control it only for Targett to sweep it away with the empty net facing him. Truth be told, it was empty for only a split second with Mings and Konsa rushing to cover for their prone keeper.

Then, in the 72nd minute, Pep Guardiola pulled off Sterling, and substituted Mahrez. Remarkably, the England star had been completely played out of the game by Matt Targett. Ironically, three minutes later Targett had to withdraw himself after taking a knock blocking a shot and Neil Taylor replaced.

What followed was Villa’s best two chances of the game. The first was almost a carbon copy of Watkins’ brilliant play ten minutes prior only this time he had Jacob Ramsey running into the 6-yard box open instead of Barkley (who had, only three minutes prior, been substituted by Ramsey). Same script different players. This time the interception by Dias was even more risky and remarkable and it prevented a simple tap-in goal.

Villa were not finished as Grealish was on the ball, again, and this time he held the ball for McGinn to come swashbuckling into the area, just like he did against Arsenal, to burst the back of the net from the perfect tee. Except, somehow John got it all wrong and he totally miskicked. Unfathomable.

Then, out of nothing, City scored. What a travesty. The game was approaching the 80-minute mark and it had been played at a frenetic pace, but with remarkable skill and commitment. With City having removed their two marquee players (De Bruyne and Sterling), it almost felt as if they recognized that they may have to settle for a draw. Another attack had been rebuffed and a long ball towards Watkins came back through a headed clearance from Silva who had intercepted. The ball arced down to Mings with the Villa backline pushing forward twenty yards outside the Villa penalty area. The Villa foursome was in formation with Rodri, ten yards behind for no apparent reason.

Mings chested the ball and, when it reached the ground, trapped it with one foot to the other to be ready to pass. By the time the ball had reached his distribution foot, Rodri had arrived on the scene and put a leg in the way. According to Rule 11 of Laws of the Game 2017/18,” IFAB, The Assistant Referee (AR) should have raised his flag to indicate Rodri was offside since his interference caused Mings to lose the ball. No reasons were supplied for the official demurring. It could be that the play was quite a distance away and he would have difficulty judging if Mings had full control of the ball. Another likely reason would be that Rodri’s opportunism worked perfectly as he dispossessed Mings and was able to feed Bernardo Silva who scored a stunning goal with Villa’s backline scrambling to reorganize. The Villa players were protested the lack of the flag and the need for a VAR review as did Dean Smith. Jon Moss would hear none of this Assistant Referees are instructed to NOT raise the flag unless they are certain in order to NOT prevent a goal opportunity (the FIFA justification for this policy change being made was to create more goal opportunities).and, in fact, gave Dean Smith a Red Card for dissent. At 78 minutes, it was Man City 1, Aston Villa 0.

Grealish, to his credit, focused on getting that goal back. City, meanwhile, had regained some composure and were skilled enough to avoid any errors. As the light blues again dominated possession and the clock approached ninety minutes, Cancelo almost scored with a stinging shot from just outside the penalty area directed at Martinez’s right corner. The shot was hit hard with enough power and curve to beat most goalies, but Martinez’s dove and his strong right hand pushed the goal-bound shot around the post. A minute later, Mahrez curved a cross from the right to the far post where Jesus met it and attempted to head it back into the middle. Matty Cash rose just in front of Jesus attempting to block the cross, that was going nowhere, and the ball hit his hand that was next to his head (part of his jumping motion). That Moss gave a penalty without checking VAR just added insult to injury. Gundogan coolly waited until Martinez dove and placed the kick right down the middle. Already in injury time, it was Man City 2, Aston Villa 0.

The final whistle blew and Villa fans around the world responded with indignation at the way that Villa lost the game and at the referee. Jonathan Moss, for punishing the Villa manager for being intemperate. In fact, the video replay suggested that, as bad as the rule is (allowing players to come back from an offside position to gain an unfair advantage), it could have been negated by recognizing that Mings did not have control of the ball. This was the second time in two consecutive games that referees ignored a Villa request for a VAR review.

Rather than dwell on this obvious bias, Smith took the high (and sensible) road that it was best to focus on the positives and there were lots of them. His team came back from a pandemic-required quarantine, a three-week gap between games, and barely a couple of days of game-prep, his team had played to a stand-off with the most expensive, and in-form, aggregation of soccer talent on the planet. He even suggested that City deserved the win given the number of chances they had created compared to his team (28 shots compared to 11, 9 on target compared to 4).

This allowed him to get his team re-focused for their game against Newcastle, something that could have been difficult given the Geordies’ dismal form of late. As Burnley proved the next day, in winning at Anfield, anything is possible in the Premier League. That the Newcastle game was scheduled just three days later was to his advantage – no time to dwell, but time for him to remind his squad that they should have come away with two ties against the Premier League’s current leaders. That was very significant as they looked ahead.

Manchester City (4-3-3): Ederson; Kyle Walker, Dwight Stones, Ruben Dias, Joao Cancelo, Kevin De Bruyne, Rodri Hernandez, Ilkay Gundogan, Bernardo Silva, Phil Foden, Raheem Sterling

SUBS: Zack Steffen, Riyadh Mahrez, Fernandihno, Gabriel Jesus, Oleksandr Zinchenko, Ferran Torres, Eric Garcia, Adrian Bernanbe, Benjamin Mendy,

ASTON VILLA (4-2-3-1): Emiliano Martinez; Matty Cash, Ezri Konsa, Tyrone Mings, Matt Targett; Douglas Luiz, John McGinn, Bertrand Traoré, Ross Barkley, Ollie Watkins, Jack Grealish (captain)

SUBS: Heaton, Elmohamady, Taylor, Hourihane, Hause, Guilbert, Nakamba, Davis (s 84′), Ramsey (s 79′), Anwar El Ghazi,

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