Aston Villa 1 Manchester City 3: Vassell has Villa in tatters once again

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The Independent Online

Darius Vassell again returned to haunt a weary-looking Aston Villa last night, his first goal of the season setting Manchester City on the way to their first away win since they beat the same opponents in April.

Joey Barton doubled the lead before half-time, and although Gavin McCann raised Villa's hopes of avoiding a first home defeat, Sylvain Distin's solo effort sealed the points for Stuart Pearce's side. City, who were a class apart, are now unbeaten in 10 games against Villa and their players hurled their shirts to their delirious followers at the end.

The occasion gave Randy Lerner food for thought as Villa's billionaire owner saw them lose for only the second time. Not only were Martin O'Neill's slender playing resources exposed in a way that suggests they must spend during the transfer window, but the crowd, for a game that could have seen Villa go third in the table, barely topped 30,000.

Vassell may not have been familiar to Lerner, having left Villa, the club he supported as a boy growing up in Birmingham, during the summer of 2005 when David O'Leary offloaded him. The former England striker - operating on the left side of midfield - has now scored five times in as many games against them and could easily have had a hat-trick.

"I think Darius loves this club [Villa]," said Pearce, the City manager. "He enjoys coming back and putting on a show. But all the players were magnificent, collectively and individually, against a very good team with a top-class manager."

O'Neill felt the match had provided a reality check for Villa. "Overall, after 15 games, I've been very pleased with the team," the Northern Irishman said. "Not tonight. We've got lots to do to be a really decent Premiership side." Villa's "predicament", he added, was that they do not a "strong enough squad" to rest some of their younger players.

City performed with a confidence that belied their wretched results on the road, and it was significant that Villa's outstanding performer was their reserve goalkeeper, Stuart Taylor. He was helpless, however, as Vassell added to his haul in the 18th minute. After Hatem Trabelsi's cross found Bernardo Corradi stooping to head the ball on, Vassell stole at the far post, his first-time, left-footed shot giving Taylor no chance.

Villa's woes deepened in the 32nd minute after Distin sent the unmarked Samaras clear. The Greek stopped the ball on the dead-ball line before looking up to see who was arriving in support. He duly rolled the ball to Barton, who side-footed home from 10 yards before indulging in a air-guitar duet with Corradi in front of a none-too-impressed Holte End.

O'Neill's arms went up to hail a Villa goal late in the first half, but after Stiliyan Petrov's free-kick curled past Nicky Weaver, the ball struck the underside of the bar and came down on the line for City to clear.

Villa had been similarly outclassed in the first half at Liverpool, going in 3-0 down, before achieving a measure of respectability in the second. There was certainly a greater determination about their play after half-time, but it was City who came closest to scoring as they tried to pick the home side off on the break.

Samaras' through-ball released Corradi shortly before the hour, only for Taylor to parry his shot. As the ball rolled to Vassell, Villa Park prepared to let out a collective groan. This time, though, he shot too close to Taylor, who saved with a leg.

Instead of going three up, City's lead was halved on 66 minutes, McCann scoring from 25 yards after a pass by Gareth Barry.

Villa threatened a revival, but with 15 minutes remaining, Distin dispossessed Milan Baros, played a one-two with Samaras on halfway and cruised, à la Beckenbauer, past Liam Ridgewell before beating Taylor.

Goals: Vassell (18) 0-1; Barton (32); McCann (66) 1-2; Distin (75) 1-3.

Aston Villa (4-4-2): Taylor; Mellberg, Cahill, Ridgewell, Bouma (Davis, 64); Agbonlahor, McCann, Petrov, Barry; Angel, Baros. Substitutes not used: Olejnik (gk), Whittingham, Hughes, Gardner.

Manchester City (4-4-2): Weaver; Richards, Dunne, Distin, Thatcher; Trabelsi (Dickov, 85), Reyna, Barton, Vassell; Corradi, Samaras (Hamann, 76). Substitutes not used: Hart (gk), Onuoha, Miller.

Referee: M Dean.

Booked: Aston Villa Barry.

Man of the match: Vassell.

Attendance: 30, 124.

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