Aston Villa’s hopes for Champions League football have well and truly been extinguished after they slumped to a 3-1 defeat at the hands of Manchester City, despite having taken the lead early on. The highest that Villa can hope to finish now is fifth-place, providing however that City lose their remaining two games. Liverpool are still two points behind them after their lacklustre performance against Chelsea on Sunday and all Martin O’Neill’s team have to do is win their last fixture to solidify a third consecutive, sixth-place finish.
The Midlanders will be wondering just how Manchester City took all three points in a score line that definitely flattered the hosts. John Carew opened the scoring after he latched onto Stewart Downing’s diagonal pass and lifted a shot past City’s emergency loan goalkeeper, Marton Fulop. The Norwegian’s strike continued his excellent goal scoring form – 11 in his last 15 games. After the opening goal, the Villa defence contained the City attack, pressuring Roberto Mancini’s men to retreat and restricting them to long-range efforts. Despite going behind early on, City failed to create any openings and the visitors looked the most likely to increase their lead. Stewart Downing came extremely close with a fiercely struck left-footed effort which flew narrowly past the top right-hand corner of the net, just before James Milner’s strike skidded scarcely past the post. Tactically, it was certain that O’Neill advised his players to test the emergency goalkeeper at every opportunity, particularly in crosses where the Villans sought to test Marton Fulop through a series of crosses, however, out of 21, only four successfully found their target.
In a two-minute flurry, the Midlanders were defensively undone and the hosts were 2-1 up just before the interval. Adam Johnson’s close control and adroit switch of direction caught Stephen Warnock flat-footed and in an attempt to try and recover, the Villa left-back clipped the England hopeful on the heel and Mark Clattenburg pointed to the spot. The resultant penalty was emphatically finished by Carlos Tevez, although Brad Friedel perhaps could have done better after letting the ball slip underneath him. In the time between the Citizens’ first and second goal, the Villans came close to re-establishing their lead – Carew’s thunderous effort cannoned off the woodwork. Then, Villa were caught on the break and Adam Johnson once again terrorised the Villa defence, this time taking the momentary left-back, Stewart Downing out of the equation to set up Emmanuel Adebayor to put the hosts ahead. The Villans were guilty of pitiable defending – Richard Dunne and James Collins both attempted to close-down Johnson, leaving Adebayor unmarked to slot past Friedel.
In the second-half, Villa searched for that decisive equalising goal, however, while they were spirited in midfield – Milner and Stiliyan Petrov competed well against Nigel De Jong and Patrick Vieira – they were inept in attack. In truth, no team looked as though they were going to score until substitute Shaun Wright-Phillips evaded the challenge of Carlos Cuellar and squared Craig Bellamy who beat Friedel and ended Villa’s Champions League hopes. Martin O’Neill showed a certain sense of despondency in a post-match interview after saying: “We were in command and playing exceptionally well until the penalty.” The Villa manager then added: “It was a fantastic effort. We chased the game all day and, if we have come up short again, we have still won more points this season than last. It’s a tough old league and, with City and Spurs both stronger this season, it is not getting any easier.” Even though another sixth-place finish will appear as though the Villans have not made any progress in terms of the Premier League, as O’Neill rightly stated, Villa have already topped their season tally for last year, proving that, in fact, the league is becoming even more competitive, with only five points separating fourth and seventh place. Nevertheless, the Midlanders have been able to compete with big-spending Manchester City and equally impressive Tottenham throughout the season, emphasising that Villa have improved significantly from last season.
On Saturday, it was Manchester City’s big signings – Carlos Tevez, Emmanuel Adebayor and Patrick Vieira – that effectively put Villa in their place. What the Midlanders lacked was someone to change the outcome of the match, Milner showed signs of fatigue and lacked his general enthusiasm and Carew was restricted to two or three moments in front of goal. When questioned on the future of the club, O’Neill said, “We have to get stronger; it is as simple as that”, and that is exactly what Villa must do.