Houllier's weird team selection allows City to think trophies

Manchester City 3 Aston Villa 0

There's been some joyful discussion in the Manchester United forums this past week of when the Stretford End ticker signalling the old enemy's 35 years without a trophy might be turned on one more year, and this was certainly one of those occasions when City provided that kind of opportunity.

An apparently comfortable route to the quarter-finals of the FA Cup lay beyond this tie and – with the greatest respect to Everton's conquerors Reading – it is the kind of opportunity you can generally rely on City to pass up. But at a moment in their campaign when injuries and indifference on the pitch had given rise to some serious anxiety about City lasting the race, they brushed aside a Villa side who had seemed to be on precisely the opposite trajectory. It was only Villa's third defeat of the calendar year but an embarrassingly easy one, completed with no need of Edin Dzeko and only 30 minutes of Carlos Tevez.

For a manager who had claimed that the 4-0 Premier League defeat here had been the low point of his Aston Villa tenure, Gérard Houllier's team selection was as baffling as it was bold. The absence of Stewart Downing, Ashley Young and Marc Albrighton from the starting line-up left Villa's young side looking vulnerable. Chris Herd's selection for a debut at right back was particularly unfathomable. Just as vulnerable against a much brighter City side than of late was Ciaran Clark who, when Aleksandr Kolarov's testing fifth-minute corner into the box was headed into the six-yard box by Patrick Vieira, flapped a shoulder at it and watched Yaya Touré gratefully lash it home. It was not marking as Houllier has come to know it.

When some of Houllier's young charges settled, they demonstrated elegance and Barry Bannan impressed in the way he had against Manchester United at Villa Park in November. But the ease with which Mario Balotelli sprinted between the centre-backs to meet Touré's through ball and calmly dispatch a spectacular half-volley in off Brad Friedel's right post after 25 minutes revealed the inequalities again.

Balotelli was that usual bundle of contradictions, demonstrating the sloppiness which is such a frustrating foil to his nine goals in 14 appearances. It was not just that he passed a ball straight to Bannan 10 minutes after scoring, but the way he stood and watched the midfielder build a move through Gabriel Agbonlahor to Emile Heskey, who forced Joe Hart's only difficult save of the first half. The City manager, Roberto Mancini, and Balotelli stood in private conversation after that one and the sight of Balotelli again clutching his troublesome right knee after twisting it on the turf towards the end of the first half revealed what a lottery the future of this prodigiously talented 20-year-old still is.

He limped off at half-time, was back after the interval as Manciniretained Carlos Tevez and Edin Dzeko on the bench. But the sight of Balotelli being booked for the ninth time this season was enough and Tevez arrived in his place near the hour mark.

Villa had at least arrived back from the interval with some vigour. Agbonlahor's pace down the left bought him a dangerous cross, which Joleon Lescott did well to clear with Heskey lurking menacingly. But the best period of pressure did not last long and Villa were out of the FA Cup on 70 minutes when Herd's lack of experience told again. A neat exchange down the right between Touré – whose value to City is becoming indisputable in the advanced midfield role Mancini has discovered for him – and Zabaleta brought a cross which Herd could only clear to the magical left foot of David Silva.

It had become a stroll by then, Tevez and Silva strutting and swatting passes around at will. Kolarov nearly became the beneficiary when he swung a shot narrowly wide of Friedel's left hand post. Tevez (twice) and substitute Jo both had sharp shots saved. It was a tragedy for Villa, a side with aspirations in all competitions 12 months ago, but who in a week when their annual results have revealed £37.6m losses and a near-£80m wage bill – a worrying 88 per cent of turnover – appear to be heading down from football's top table. "You should have kept Stevie Ireland," City's fans sang of their much-loved former player and to judge by Villa's powers of creation they had a point. The West Midlanders who embarked on some head tennis with the ball five minutes from time offered the best skills of any in a Villa shirt all night. The City fans beside them just kept singing: "35 years and we're still here."

Manchester City (4-2-3-1): Hart; Richards ( Boyata, 83), Boateng, Lescott, Zabaleta; Barry, Vieira; Silva, Y Touré (Jo, 80), Kolarov; Balotelli (Tevez, 60). Substitutes not used Taylor (gk), Johnson, Dzeko, Wabara.

Aston Villa (4-5-1): Friedel; Herd, Dunne (Walker, 83), Clark, Delph; Bradley (Young, 71), Petrov, Bannan, Agbonlahor; Heskey, Delfouneso (Downing, 71). Substitutes not used Marshall (gk), Albrighton, Pires, Reo-Coker.

Referee M Clattenburg (Tyne & Wear).

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