The title race may well be over but at least the towel has not been thrown in just yet. Manchester City’s players came into this game on the back of some harsh words from their manager, Roberto Mancini, over their failure to sustain a meaningful defence of their Premier League crown. They were 15 points behind leaders Manchester United at kick-off last night but had narrowed the gap to 12 by the end, following a narrow victory secured by Carlos Tevez in the dying embers of the first half.
Last season City trailed United by eight points with six matches remaining and though Mancini conceded it was "difficult" to imagine Sir Alex Ferguson's men slipping up again, he demanded that the champions at least win all their remaining games just in case. "We have 30 points more and we need to try to win [every game]. In the end we will see what happens. In football anything can happen," he said, more in hope than expectation.
City may have failed to reproduce last season's swagger but they were at least effective last night and certainly too strong for Aston Villa as they built on last week's win over Chelsea. That said, they did benefit from the kind of mistake that has come to define the home side's sorry season. Anybody wondering just what Villa are doing in the Premier League's bottom three only had to see the goal that sealed their 14th defeat in 28 matches as an error by centre-back Ciaran Clark led to Tevez scoring his 11th of the campaign.
A minute remained of first-half stoppage time when Clark dawdled in possession some 30 yards from his own goal and as Edin Dzeko closed him down, tried an ill-advised turn that ended with the City striker pinching the ball and breaking to the edge of the box where he squared to Tevez. The Argentine, starting in place of the injured Sergio Aguero, took goalkeeper Brad Guzan out with a dummy and shot past Clark on the goalline.
Clark, stand-in captain in Ron Vlaar's absence, argued to referee Mike Dean that he had been fouled but Paul Lambert, the Villa manager, had no complaints. "I wouldn't have minded if somebody had put one in the top corner, it was a mistake by us," he said. "It is easy to be critical of Ciaran Clark, the lad has been excellent for me [and] he will learn from it."
The problem with Villa's young team is these lessons are proving so costly. They have won just one of their last 11 league games and remain third-bottom with 24 points, a point ahead of a Reading side they face on Saturday in a match they can ill-afford to lose if they are to prolong their 25-year stay in the top division.
After that they host Queen's Park Rangers but Lambert, despite seeing the impressive Fabian Delph ruled out for both those six-pointers after his yellow card here, remains confident they can escape. "The next two games are massive. If we play like that we'll certainly give [those teams] a fright."
They very nearly gave City a scare in a high-tempo start but came no closer than when Christian Benteke connected with a Charles N'Zogbia corner and powered in a header that Tevez of all people cleared off the line.
That was as near as Villa came although the real turning point came soon after when the unfortunate Jack Rodwell limped off with a recurrence of his hamstring problems. He was starting a second successive league game for the first time in City colours and had only just forced Guzan into a fingertip save but now limped away, shaking his head in frustration.
"We are very sorry for Jack," said Mancini, who expects him to be sidelined for up to five weeks and foresees no quick fix for the injury-plagued young midfielder. "It is impossible to solve this problem in six or seven months. He has had this problem for five, six years. We need maybe more time."
Yet Rodwell's loss turned out to be City's gain. Dzeko came on, Yaya Touré dropped back and the champions were soon peppering Guzan's goal. The American made a series of fine saves as half-time approached, notably to turn Pablo Zabaleta's shot on to the far post after some slick City interplay.
That good work was undone by Clark's error, though, and Villa almost shot themselves in the foot again soon after the interval as Dzeko robbed Matthew Lowton but this time the full-back got back to clear Tevez's shot off the line.
Villa had another let-off when Yaya Touré struck a post and the offside Dzeko turned in the rebound but they did at least respond, with Gabriel Agbonlahor going close with a header that Kolo Touré deflected behind. The rest, though, was huff and puff and they will need more than that in the weeks to come.