At this rate Darren Bent might just make the No 39 shirt his own at Aston Villa. Controversially signed earlier in the week for a club-record outlay of £18 million, potentially rising to £24m, Gérard Houllier's new striker repeated his feat of scoring on his debuts for Charlton and Tottenham by poaching the goal that eased Villa's relegation fears and put a serious dent in Manchester City's title prospects.
The official statistics showed that Bent, who was Sunderland's match-winner against City in August, touched the ball only 27 times during the 90 minutes. To the delight of the home crowd, and the interest of the watching England manager, Fabio Capello, he got the only touch that counted, a classic predator's finish in the 18th minute.
That left Roberto Mancini's side plenty of time to deny Villa a second win in 11 matches. Only in the final six minutes, however, when Ciaran Clark deflected Nigel de Jong's 20-yard volley on to a post and Aleksandar Kolarov's goalbound drive flew behind off Carlos Cuellar, did City look like breaching a defence in which James Collins and Richard Dunne were defiance personified.
Mancini had congratulated Houllier before the game on landing Bent, saying: "You've bought a great player." Afterwards, Houllier labelled Bent "a natural-born goalscorer" whose gift is "something you can't teach". But, the Villa manager noted, it was the collective effort that pleased him most. "The team probably hit rock-bottom in the game at City [a 4-0 defeat last month]. It really affected us. But from that point we've started to pull together a bit more. Physically, we're in bettershape. Mentally, too. When you're one up against a team of that calibre with 10 minutes left, you've got to be strong."
Mancini left quickly after the game to catch a flight to Italy to see his sick father, leaving his No 2, Brian Kidd, to explain the setback. "There wasn't enough urgency in the first half but we put them under severe pressure in the second. I thought Villa put in a great defensive effort. It's a blip for us. Manchester United are going well and undefeated. I've always felt the title was theirs to lose. Our aim is still the top four."
The bubble of optimism surrounding Bent's capture might easily have been burst before he had done anything more than hold the ball up. In the 17th minute, a corner delivered by Kolarov flashed across Villa's six-yard area. Carlos Tevez, of all people, kicked fresh air by the far post, and Villa celebrated their escape by sweeping upfield and scoring. Gabriel Agbonlahor threaded a pass through to Ashley Young, who surged between two defenders and curled a shot which the sprawling Joe Hart could only parry. Bent was on to the loose ball in a flash, angling it into the net before being engulfed by jubilant team-mates.
It said much for City's first-half performance that their best efforts on goal came from a defender and midfielder respectively. Kompany's header, following a corner by Kolarov was turned over by Brad Friedel. Then Jérôme Boateng's cross found Gareth Barry rising unchallenged before the Holte End that once revered him. To a chorus of jeers, the header flashed inches wide.
From the restart City piled forward. They dominated possession, with Tevez taking up a more advanced role, but their intricate moves frequently foundered against a massed defence. Even though Bent was isolated in what had effectively become a 4-5-1 formation, with Agbonlahor almost playing at left-back, Friedel remained largely a spectator.
The Villa fans' sense that this would be their night was enhanced by the sight of the ineffectual Barry trudging off, although his replacement, Adam Johnson, soon took aim with a ferocious shot from the right flank which Villa were relieved to see their goalkeeper smother. Thanks to the heroics of Collins and co, Friedel was able to savour a first clean sheet in 13 matches and Bent's match-winner status was preserved.
Referee: Howard Webb
Man of the match: Collins