City on higher ground

A MONTH ago, few would have backed City to get off the bottom all season. Not only have they achieved that already, but they are no longer even in the bottom three. To the two points won in their first 11 matches, Alan Ball's erstwhile favourites for relegation have added 10 points in four games. If their players went out to celebrate last night, it was no more than they deserved.

And if any one of them deserved to have his glass refilled all evening - in particular by Keith Curle, his captain - it was the little Georgian midfielder Georgi Kinkladze. Curle's first-half penalty miss was beginning to look as if it would be costly, but a brilliant goal by Kinkladze, six minutes from time, rendered it unimportant.

It was the 22-year-old's first for City, which seemed quite remarkable, given that his skills had illuminated the afternoon. Slipping past Steve Staunton to feed Niall Quinn in the penalty area, Kinkladze continued his run from the left to receive his colleague's back-heeled return and then curled a delicious shot beyond the left hand of Mark Bosnich.

Thus an afternoon that had begun in celebration, with Bert Trautmann, a foreign hero of old, opening the pounds 11m Kippax Stand, ended in similar vein, with cheers raised around the ground for a new continental favourite. Some 50 years younger than the German goalkeeper of local legend, Kinkladze may have years of adulation ahead of him.

"He is a player of immense talent," Ball said afterwards, in self-congratulatory mood. "But I've said that from day one. He has great technique, superb feet - he is the kind of player the chairman and I want to make this club great again.

"But you have to remember, he came here hardly able to speak any English, unaware of how he would need to play in English football. He needed time, but you've seen today the progress he is making."

Ball was rightly keen to sing the praises of others. "We were magnificent all the way through the team," he said. But the Georgian stood out. It was he who won, fortuitously perhaps, the 20th-minute penalty - fired embarrassingly wide by Curle - and he who created the first half's second- best chance, from which Paul McGrath somehow deflected Uwe Rosler's shot on to a post with Bosnich on the floor. It was he also who clipped the top of the crossbar with a dipping shot from 25 yards.

Villa, unbeaten in five matches before this and emerging as challengers at the top of the table, had their moments but, by and large, had Bosnich to thank for staying on level terms for so long. And Brian Little was candid enough to concede that the result from a pulsating contest was just. "We rode our luck with the penalty but they were probably just a little bit better than us today," the Villa manager said.

The match marked the completion of a year in charge for Little and he can reflect happily on it. When he took over from Ron Atkinson, Villa were fourth from bottom with an ageing team that appeared to have run its course. Regardless of this result, the future looks much brighter now.