City's escape route

Aston Villa 0 Manchester City 1 Lomas 69 Attendance: 39,336
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The Independent Online
The escape hatch is still ajar for Manchester City after a deflection off Aston Villa's Paul McGrath brought them victory and only their second away win of the season yesterday, but with Coventry City and Southampton also both winning, it could still close on them. The threat is made doubly difficult since their last match is against Liverpool at Maine Road and their goal difference is far inferior to the other strugglers.

The irony of City's situation yesterday was that they had hardly got together for the best part of a week because so many of them were away on international duty. Obviously, that raised a question about the reasons why a club that contributed six players to national sides is itself so dangerously close to sinking. Alan Ball must have been hoping that perhaps Villa, who had already qualified for Europe, would not be too unkind.

The absence of Dwight Yorke may have been cause for slight optimism on Ball's part, but McGrath said that Villa owed it to City's fellow sufferers to play at full pitch. Despite his "own goal" he did more than anyone to stop Georgi Kinkladze from weaving skills or Niall Quinn from bundling his way past three central defenders. And when Villa counter-attacked, Savo Milosevic always looked likely to walk the ball past any number of defenders while Tommy Johnson's love of the speculative shot saw several first-half tries without really making his point.

City's dreadful away record was easily understood for an hour as serious support from midfield came only at set-pieces, which McGrath and Steve Staunton mopped up. As a result, City's urgent need for victory barely revealed itself until deep into the second half. Indeed, they almost threw or at least headed away their chances after 35 minutes when Johnson headed across their goalmouth and Steve Lomas's over-powerful header back to his own goalkeeper could easily have beaten him.

City were equally fortunate to escape when Alan Wright drove a 22-yard shot that beat Eike Immel's upstretched hands but clipped the crossbar. At least they countered more forcefully but had no luck when Mark Bosnich parried a stinging shot from Uwe Rosler. Quinn had no time to get purchase on the rebound.

The early part of the second half indicated that City had been told to do a lot more in the way of supporting Quinn and Rosler. Nigel Clough, rarely noticed in the first half, pushed forward effectively but Villa weathered the pressure and were the width of the post away from taking the lead when Milosevic headed the ball on to it from two yards.

City resumed their ambition through the deceptive speed of Kinkladze and greater use of defenders as wide attackers. When Michael Brown went forward after 71 minutes, his centre was met by the head of Quinn and turned on to Lomas, whose header would have gone wide but hit McGrath and deflected in. The relief at one end of the ground was almost tangible, yet Villa had ample time to destroy it. They almost did when Johnson's 25-yard shot burst through all of their defenders except Immel, who safely held the ball and perhaps even City's future.

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