Anelka's hat-trick lifts City into third

Manchester City 4 Aston Villa 1
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The Independent Football

Nicolas Anelka's former girlfriend went running to the press last week, complaining that his idea of romance was to take her shopping for frozen prawns at Tesco or, more romantically, for dinner with his agent.

On the pitch, however, Anelka knows how to thrill. When he taunted Alpay Ozalan on the edge of the area in the 83rd minute before rifling his shot past Thomas Sorensen, it was his sixth goal of the season and his third of a match which had been turned on its head. Booed off at the interval, Manchester City embraced a first Premiership victory at their new stadium, sweeping Aston Villa aside with a second-half display that sparked comparisons with Kevin Keegan's old Newcastle teams.

His assistant, Arthur Cox, was gruffly dismissive when one of his players produced a Premiership table showing City were up to third, saying he would look at it again in May. Yet both Keegan and Anelka are men who thrive on optimism, which is blowing like oxygen through the bare concrete corridors of the City of Manchester Stadium.

"I think there is so much more to come from Nicolas Anelka," Keegan reflected. "He knows that. Some of the things he can do, I have not seen from anyone else on a training pitch. He's been around for such a long time that it's easy to forget he's 24. I was 27 before I learned what football was all about. At 27, he will be at his peak, one of the best in the world."

Despite his hat-trick, two-thirds of which came from the penalty spot, the Frenchman was not Keegan's choice as man of this particular match, an accolade he gave to Steve McManaman, who on his debut for Manchester City gave a first taste of the grace and poise the domestic game lost when he left Anfield for the Bernabeu. His understanding with Anelka came not because they had briefly been part of the Real Madrid side which won their eighth European Cup three years ago, but because they instinctively speak the higher language of football.

"He was safe when it was right to be safe, he was inventive when it was right to be inventive," Keegan noted, although in the first half City were a long way from being safe. For the manner in which they conceded the opening goal of a very open contest, shambolic would be the only adjective that would suffice. A long upfield punt from Thomas Hitzlsperger just after the half-hour was held up well by Marcus Allback and, as Lee Hendrie sent over the cross from the right, instead of challenging Juan Pablo Angel, Sun Jihai was standing on the six-yard line appealing vainly for offside.

It was amateurish stuff but six minutes later Olof Mellberg was carried off with a groin injury and Villa were never quite the same again.

Five minutes into the second half, and to general astonishment, they were behind. Mark Delaney, the third defender trying to stop McManaman's dart into the area, used his hand and was punished with a penalty. Two minutes later, Michael Tarnat, standing on the edge of the box, sent a free-kick thundering through Sorensen's gloves. "It's a human error but he did it at the wrong time," was O'Leary's withering verdict on his goalkeeper.

The errors kept coming and when, in the 68th minute, Peter Whittingham responded to Shaun Wright-Phillips' delightful back-heel to Sun Jihai by conceding a second penalty, the game was up. Anelka converted the second as effortlessly as he had the first and the South Americans reportedly negotiating to buy Aston Villa for £25m might have reflected that an awful lot more than that is needed to overhaul the team.

Goals: Angel (31) 0-1; Anelka pen (48) 1-1; Tarnat (50) 2-1; Anelka pen (68) 3-1; Anelka (83) 4-1.

Manchester City (4-4-2): Seaman 5; Sun Jihai 3, Sommeil 5, Distin 4, Tarnat 6; Wright-Phillips 7, Barton 4 (Sibierski 5, 73), McManaman 8, Sinclair 7; Wanchope 4 (Reyna, 82), Anelka 8. Substitutes not used: Fowler, Dunne, Weaver (gk).

Aston Villa (4-4-2): Sorensen 4; Delaney 5, Mellberg 6 (Alpay 5, 37), Johnsen 6 (Hadji 4, 66), Samuel 4; Hendrie 5, McCann 5, Hitzlsperger 6, Whittingham 4; Allback 4, Angel 6 (Dublin, 76). Substitutes not used: Kinsella, Postma (gk).

Referee: M Halsey (Bolton) 5.

Bookings: Aston Villa: Johnsen.

Man of the match: McManaman.

Attendance: 46,687.