Manchester City (4) vs Aston Villa (1) – Our depleted Villa squad starts well but fades

Wednesday, April 3, 20:15 – Etihad Stadium

Referee: Darren England

Depleted, how so?  Well, in addition to those who have missed big chunks of the season (Mings, Buendia, Ramsey, and Kamara), Wednesday saw the following to be MIA: Watkins, Martinez, Torres, Cash, Bailey, Tielemans, and, of course, captain John McGinn!  Exactly eleven, and a very decent eleven who would have been quite a threat to Man City’s need to gain all three points.

That our “second team” was able to hold the world’s winningest soccer aggregation to a tie until injury time of the halftime break speaks to the depth of Emery’s expanded Villa squad.

Still, it was an unfortunate coincidence on my part in commenting in my Pre-Game Assessment that the rash of injuries this season extended “even to goalies”.  If I hexed my Villans by Martinez having to be withdrawn, I apologize.  In the first place, it was illness and not an injury!  Nevertheless, it certainly undermined my prediction that our World Class goalie would have to make an “outstanding save or two” – too bad he was not around for that.

While it is hard to believe that Rodri’s early goal would not have been saved by Martinez, our backup boys seemed not concerned and went on to tie the game.  What was a concern was that we were at the 45-minute mark when we conceded a freekick just outside our penalty area and then failed to block the ensuing shot by Foden to go into the dressing room behind.

Against any other team, tying a second time would be a possibility.  Against Manchester City that would be a statistical miracle!

So, what happened?  To start with, Emery succeeded in surprising everyone with his starting eleven.  In addition to the known injuries and illness, replacing Torres with Lenglet?  I suppose it did make sense given that the Spaniard’s availability to play at home to Brentford on Saturday, was strategically important, as was having Bailey and Tielemans as fresh as possible.

While there were starts where the inclusion of Iroegbunam seemed more logical, this game was the lowest risk in terms of the high-side potential (rationally being only one point), a metric that Emery would be well aware of.

Another reason to believe that Martinez was actually ill, and this was not gamesmanship, was the importance of goal difference as a factor at season end.  As for Digne and Zaniolo, they justified their inclusion based on their positive play off the bench against Wolves on Saturday.

For Man City, it was imperative that they win and settle the nerves of their home fans who had seen their team held scoreless by Arsenal on Sunday and, even worse, with only one shot on target in the 90 minutes plus of playing time.

Guardiola, the master strategist, found ways to use his starting eleven selection as a motivational aid.  First, he took advantage of the presence of fans and TV cameras to publicly “dress down” Jack Grealish as he left the field on Sunday against Arsenal.  Then, of course, he selected Jack as a starter to give the former-Villan a chance to channel his embarrassment into succeeding against his old teammates.  He then held three of his superstars (Stones, Haaland, and De Bruyne) on the bench knowing that their replacements (Doku, Alvarez, and Rico Lewis) were more than competent and, if needed, he had world class reinforcements ready.

From the opening whistle, our Villans played with surprising flourish. Carlos dispossessed Alvarez as he chased a loose ball in our Villans’ penalty area and instantly found Diaby on the right wing.  Moussa cut inside, avoiding a phalanx of blue shirts, before zipping a pass to Zaniolo, who managed to turn on Rico Lewis and avoid another blue mob, before finding Lucas Digne to his left.

Our French international carried toward the touch line with his eye on Zaniolo who was racing down the left wing with Lewis trailing and Akanji coming over to cover.  With his momentum going towards the corner flag, our Italian had no opportunity to get by his marker and he took the best option available, attempt a cross to Durán in front of the goal.  Akanji was well positioned and blocked, but at the cost of a corner.  There was less than a minute on the clock.  Not a bad start by any means.

Luiz, originally a City player, came to take the corner and our claret and blue big boys congregated in the 6-yard box.  Luiz’s whipped inswinger was met by Lenglet who ran to meet the ball with his head at the edge of the box.  The intent was to skim a pass to Zaniolo at the far post, but it was too feint and Rodri was able to clear before it reached its target.  Foden ran onto the loose ball and raced forward only to be quickly chased down by the very quick Konsa.  Foden turned with the ball and passed to Bernardo Silva who, in turn, passed to Rico Lewis and back to Rodri who found Jack Grealish on the touchline.  Grealish immediately headed infield and, when he saw Alvarez break through our backline at the edge of the penalty area, hooked a pass for the Argentinian to run onto to the left of the goal.  With Carlos in close attendance, Olsen had the angle covered.  The first-time volley was impressive as it hit the side netting, but Olsen appeared unperturbed.  Goal kick, but a warning.

Man City, as they do, took control of the game with Rodri spraying passes out to both touchlines (to Doku and Grealish) and trying a speculative shot from outside the box that Olsen gathered easily in the 10th minute.  A minute later Rodri had better luck when Foden found Doku on the wing with Digne and Zaniolo having switched.  Against the Italian, Doku jinxed outside and pulled a cross back.  Lenglet was caught on his heels as Rodri ran in and drove the ball high into the net at the near post.  Manchester City 1, Aston Villa 0 in the 11th minute.

Olsen was overpowered by Villa’s bogeyman, a player they find very hard to keep from scoring.  He was notably absent from the City line-up in the reverse fixture.  An encouraging sign was that our Villans responded with confidence and young Iroegbunam was not looking out of place among so many star players.

Then, in the 15th minute, our Villans showed a sign of what they are capable of.  With City setting an offside trap outside their penalty area, Douglas Luiz, our captain, in the absence of McGinn and Martinez, shaped a perfect chip over the line for Durán to run under.  The arc was on the money and our Columbian hit a perfect left-footed volley that Ortega did well to reflexively save to his left, pushing the ball around the post.  There was no corner as the flag had gone up for being marginally offside.

Then, out of nothing, our Villans tied the game.  City caused their own turnover when Alvarez tried to dribble into our Villan penalty area only to lose possession.  Lenglet found Zaniolo who immediately dispatched to Rogers.  Our recent signing, who had been guilty of giving up possession himself in tight situations during the game, ran confidently down the field and found Durán ahead of him to his left. 

At the edge of the City penalty area Durán hesitated when faced with Diaz, then squared to Rogers who immediately returned the give-and-go beyond the flat-footed Diaz.  Durán was one-on-one with the goalie and he confidently stroked the ball with his left foot just inside the far post. 

Edison, with his brilliant foot skills, might have saved but this was a very well executed counterattack and finish.  Manchester City 1, Aston Villa 1, in the 20th minute.  Wow, we were back in the game!  Manchester City had different ideas and they gradually re-exerted their control with their pin-point passes.

In the 37th minute, Lewis, who had joined up with the offense, slipped in the very quick Alvarez who should have found the far corner with his right-footed shot but aimed too close to Olsen and the Swedish international was able to kick the shot clear.

When City were awarded a freekick against Douglas Luiz just outside our Villan penalty area two minutes later, it was again Alvarez taking the shot and again failing to find the target, this time well over the bar.  That Luiz received a yellow card for the foul should have been a lesson to Douglas, but he did not heed it.

In a similar situation in the 45th minute when it was Foden and not Grealish dribbling, he could have easily been given a second yellow card and been ejected from the game.  Instead, he gave the home side another freekick in a dangerous location.

This time it was Foden and, when he shot, the wall opened up and, before Olsen could move, the ball was in the back of the net.  Zaniolo had turned and allowed the ball to fly by.  Other players stood aghast.  Manchester City 2, Aston Villa 1, in the 47th minute.

With no line-up changes at halftime, the second half started with City continuing to dominate possession but creating few chances.  Doku was lively on the right but without any real threat.

Then, from another City attack on their right, Luiz managed to deflect a pass, intended for Foden, to Zaniolo, who drew Akanji and Foden and slipped a pass to Luiz who was breaking out of his own penalty area.  In a matter of a few seconds, our Villans had a 3 on 2 counterattack with only Diaz and Gvardiol against Luiz, Durán and Diaby.

As Luiz approached City’s penalty area, he sprayed a pass to Diaby to his right and the Frenchman hesitated enough to draw the original two defenders, joined by Akanji and Rodri and confound them by squaring back to Luiz who only had Ortega ahead of him.  Luiz hit a bullet of a shot, heading just under the crossbar but the German goalie dove acrobatically and, with his fingertips, diverted the shot over.

Our Villans were not finished.  From Luiz’s corner, it was Lenglet again getting a head on the cross, only this time directing at the net.  Ortega had to scramble across his line and palm clear.  That was close, but there was a sense that our Villans had had their moment and came up a little short.

With De Bruyne and Haaland warming up for City, it was only going to get harder.  Our Villans were getting leggy, and Rodri was able to walk through tackles.  A pull back to Foden at the edge of the area with Olsen slightly unsighted and slow to respond, saw the ball in the back of the net off his left post with our backup goalie still on his feet.  Not a good look!  Manchester City 3, Aston Villa 1, in the 62nd minute.

Our Villans brought on fresh legs, but Tielemans, Chambers, and Bailey were spectators as the once again cocky City side sprayed passes around.  Sure enough, within five minutes Chambers tried to dribble away from his penalty area and was dispossessed by Foden who let fly from outside the box, the ball hitting the back of the net in Olsen’s top left corner and him, again, rooted to terra firma.  Manchester City 4, Aston Villa 1, in the 69th minute.

Both teams made wholesale changes and, the game petered out with there being no potential to change the result.  While it was disappointing for our Villans and a big relief for the home side, the morning after prognosis seems more positive for us and less positive for City.

Starting with City, they won but they do not know what their best line-up is!  Haaland is a phenomenal talent, but his presence does not elicit the best performances from his teammates.  If he can be thwarted from scoring, it is hard for his teammates to pick up the slack.  Then there is their schedule.  They have a home and away against Real Madrid in the Champions League and an F.A. Cup semi-final against Chelsea, before five Premier League away games at Crystal Palace. Brighton, Nottingham Forest, Chelsea, and Spurs; and only three home games against Luton, West Ham, Wolves.

More importantly, City are three points behind Liverpool and two points behind Arsenal with no games with their rivals.  They have to hope the teams above them lose points while they lose as few as possible.  They are not in control of their destiny!

Our Villans, on the other hand, have more four home games out of the seven remaining (Brentford, Bournemouth, Chelsea, and Liverpool) all winnable and three away games (Arsenal, Brighton, and Crystal Palace).

It appears that our Villans are more likely to achieve our goal (to qualify for the UEFA Champions League) than City is to win a fourth consecutive Premier League.

As for our Villans individual performances in these difficult circumstances, there were lots of positives to take away.  Konsa continued his fine form though he was limited to focusing on defense.  One important measure is that Grealish neither got a shot on goal nor an assist.

Carlos, Lenglet, and Digne also held their own and never lost their shape.  Midfield was where we were outplayed but more because of City’s strength.  Luiz had some fine moments and could easily have scored while Iroegbunam looked like he belonged, but he needs more playing time to get fully match fit.

Diaby, Rogers, Zaniolo, and Durán all played well at times, but we never were able to gain enough traction.

Manchester City (4, 2, 3, 1): Ortega, Lewis, Rúben Dias, Akanji, Gvardiol, Rodri (Matheus Nunes 75′), Bernardo Silva (Kovacic 75′), Doku (Gómez 80′), Foden (Bobb 80′), Grealish, Álvarez

Unused Subs: Stones, Haaland, Carson, Susoho

Aston Villa (4, 2, 3, 1): Olsen, Konsa, Diego Carlos, Lenglet, Digne, Iroegbunam (Tielemans 63′), Douglas Luiz (Chambers 64′), Diaby (Bailey 63′), Rogers, Zaniolo (Kellyman 77′), Durán (Moreno 71′)

Unused Subs: Torres, Gauci, Kesler Hayden

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