Football: McMahon guards open secret

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The Independent Online
Manchester City. 1

Aston Villa. . .1

THEY are calling it the Open Championship - and there is still no sign of a Faldo in the clubhouse. The swings and turnabouts of the race for the inaugural Premier League title demand that the only new year prediction worth countenancing is that the chase will continue to be unpredictable.

Aston Villa, the bookies' favourites, were expected to sweep aside a mixed-up Manchester City, but, by the end, as waves of blue attacks flowed towards Nigel Spink's goal, they were relieved to leave Maine Road with a point.

'I don't consider us favourites,' the Villa manager, Ron Atkinson, said. 'There are other teams with better qualifications than us. I don't know who they are though.'

This mediocrity in an age of uncertainty is partly explained by the nature of the Premier League itself - money. Clubs simply cannot afford to take their hands out of the honey-pot; relegation would cost millions, so teams fight even harder to stay in contention. With three points for a win, resurgent sides can regain security quickly.

Steve McMahon is well placed to judge the contenders, having won three championship medals at Anfield. 'One week people are saying Arsenal and Villa are in with a chance, then Liverpool are coming good, but then they got stuffed today,' City's forceful midfielder said. 'The League is upside down.'

McMahon was crucial in orchestrating City's comeback after they had fallen behind in the first half to Garry Parker's nimbly struck volley, the majesty of which was tarnished only by the feeling that Dalian Atkinson should have been flagged offside in the build-up.

Parker had eclipsed McMahon in the first half, the England B international displaying the full range of his playmaking talents before the watching Graham Taylor. 'Not one of their midfielders stays in one position,' McMahon, a former Villan, said. 'Garry Parker likes to break while Kevin Richardson sits a bit, Ray Houghton roams and Dwight Yorke comes in off the line. If you give them time to play, they will pass the ball all day.'

McMahon disrupted Villa's flow after the break, underpinning City's revival by corralling Parker and allowing Garry Flitcroft to flit forward. Flitcroft, born in Bolton 20 years ago, is an excellent prospect and scored his second goal in successive games by arriving late and unmarked in the box to convert Ian Brightwell's right-wing cross.

Flitcroft started the game on the right, but City became a far more rounded and threatening unit when he moved inside to his preferred central station alongside Mike Sheron, Peter Reid's replacement, while McMahon dropped deep. With their midfield purring, City finished the stronger, probing every opening and nearly scoring through Sheron and Niall Quinn.

Much of Villa's menace disappeared when Dalian Atkinson limped off on the hour with a recurrence of a groin strain which will require further treatment this week. 'We missed his ability to hold the ball,' Ron Atkinson said. His team now tackle Coventry, the League's latest surprise package, and Arsenal over Christmas when, no doubt, the Premier picture will become even muddier.

Goals: Parker (35) 0-1, Flitcroft (58) 1-1.

Manchester City: Coton; I Brightwell, Phelan, McMahon, Hill, White, Reid (Sheron, 58), Quinn, Flitcroft, Holden. Substitutes not used: Simpson, Margetson (gk).

Aston Villa: Spink; Barrett, Staunton, Teale, McGrath, Richardson, Houghton, Parker, Saunders, Atkinson (Breitkreutz, 60), Yorke. Substitutes not used: Cox, Bosnich (gk).

Referee: R Bigger (Croydon).