It has been a long time since Villa Park looked and sounded like this, a rhapsody in claret and blue. Perfect strangers embraced, old men battered hoardings with their bare hands, stewards communed with all and sundry. Well they might. Aston Villa were nowhere for 45 minutes, lucky to be only one goal behind a Manchester City side that looked capable of anything they pleased. Yet unbelievably, victory was Villa’s at the close.
How to evaluate the spirit shown by a home side shredded 4-0 five days earlier in the same stadium, and increasingly shorn of confidence and belief? Only four of Villa’s previous 13 home games ended in anything other than defeat. Perhaps some things are simply beyond analysis. What we know is that Villa grew to a station way beyond the sum of their parts after the break, refusing to be denied their share of a day Birmingham eclipsed Manchester in the coming together of second cities.
To single out any for special praise would be an abuse. It is enough to suggest that Fabian Delph, Yacouba Sylla, and Karim El Ahmadi, the central cogs in a five-man midfield, had little trouble sleeping last night. City might have had half a dozen in a first half of absolute control. Had the Villa portion of the pitch boasted a shower block and toilets it could not have been more of a campsite for City, who had too many guns, stretching Villa left and right.
Long before the first goal came you sensed that Villa knew as well as City that it was on its way. Incredibly it took 44 minutes to arrive. Less of a surprise was that Yaya Touré should score it.
Touré is a wonder of the modern game, labouring as if carrying a sack of coal on his back yet still managing to elude defenders, and positively eating up the ground when the moment calls. He was first to the ball when Samir Nasri’s corner was headed clear, side-footing past keeper Brad Guzan.
The game changed utterly seven minutes into the second half with a goal brilliantly crafted by Leandro Bacuna, who slipped a neat reverse pass through for El Ahmadi to turn and rifle a shot that left Joe Hart helpless on the seat of his pants. When Edin Dzeko headed City back in front from a corner, City must have felt the danger had passed.
But something was stirring in the young legs of this Villa side and driven forward via the Ahmadi-Delph-Sylla axis they were a team transformed. Not that City were commensurately diminished. Forward they poured magnificently supported by the flying full-backs Pablo Zabaleta and Aleksandar Kolarov. Nasri gave way to the jet heeled Jesus Navas and Dzeko to Stevan Jovetic, a £50 million athletic transfusion right there. At the end of the first half Villa were at sixes and sevens trying to keep City at bay. Here they were composed, led heroically by skipper Ron Vlaar.
Bacuna levelled with a well-taken free-kick in the 73rd minute and two minutes later Andreas Weimann sprinted between napping defenders to race on to Guzan’s clearance and guide the ball past Hart for the winner. Villa Park convulsed.
“It is a massive result for us,” said Villa boss Paul Lambert. “I’m proud of those boys. The three lads in the middle were excellent, worked really hard. But we are a team. We are all in this together, the crowd too. The Holte End was magnificent today. City had possession in the first half but not many teams have ball against them. This is a team favoured to win the Premier League, looking to go all the way in the Champions League so that tells you the magnitude of the result for us.” His counterpart Manuel Pellegrini was struggling to explain the outcome. “At the moment we haven’t a victory away. Today we played similar to the way we played against Manchester United. It’s frustrating, but that’s football. We had a lot of chances and possession, the game was under our control but we didn’t take our chances,” he said. “This is the nature of the Premier League, something that I knew about and that I have seen. Any team can win. The differences are very small. We played the same in the second half as the first, what was different was the goal.”
Despite the result City go to a Champions League tie with Bayern Munich with a clearer sense of what Pellegrini wants and how the team knits together. As contradictory as it sounds this was a powerful City display. Had the ball bounced their way they would have been comprehensively out of Villa’s reach. This was not the insipid showing that saw them stuffed at Cardiff and embarrassed by Stoke. And the way this season is unfolding this was not the worst day to have a freak reverse.
Villa’s challenge is to repeat the intensity at Hull next week. “We’ll enjoy this, but you can’t dwell,” Lambert said. “We have to go again.”
Aston Villa (3-1-4-2): Guzan; Vlaar, Baker, Clark; Delph; Bacuna, El Ahmadi, Luna, Sylla; Weimann (Bowery, 79), Kozak.
Manchester City (4-4-2): Hart; Zabaleta, Kompany, Nastasic, Kolarov; Nasri (Navas, 65), Fernandinho, Touré, Milner; Negredo, Dzeko (Jovetic, 73).
Referee: Mike Jones.
Man of the match: El Ahmadi (Aston Villa)
Match rating: 9/10