City top but now comes the hard part

Manchester City 4 Aston Villa 1

Queen Victoria was on the throne when Manchester City last began a league season with seven wins and a draw. As it happens, their Victorian forebears fell short in that 1897-98 campaign, missing promotion to the top flight by one place, and perhaps leading some mutton-chopped Mancunian to mutter "Typical City" for the first time.

City's prospects of avoiding another anti-climax certainly look rosy after the way they equalled that 114-year record by dismantling a hitherto unbeaten Aston Villa, their 4-1 victory taking them above Manchester United at the Premier League summit – the perfect fillip before a key Champions League meeting with Villarreal, then Sunday's derby at Old Trafford.

According to manager Roberto Mancini, there is a belief in the City camp that they can stay top though he recognised that there were "another 30 games" to play. "We work for this and we want to stay there for a long time if possible." City have not been in a title race since the 1970s but Mancini has, twice steering Internazionale to the Serie A crown – the first time by 22 points, the second occasion after pipping Roma on the final day. He is happy to lead from the front. "I prefer to be there all season with [a lead of] six, seven points but it is important to be there after the last game in May," he said.

If the Premier League table makes pleasing reading for City, this is not the case in the Champions League where they sit third in Group A before facing bottom-placed Villarreal tomorrow. Another slip-up, after drawing with Napoli and losing at Bayern Munich, could prove fatal but Mancini retains a sanguine outlook, having qualified from such a position before, with Inter in 2006-07. "If we beat Villarreal we can go for first place, not just for second. At Inter we lost our first two games, [but] we went to [Bayern] Munich for the last game with a chance to win the group."

The manager will have Sergio Aguero available tomorrow though the Argentine's absence was not felt on Saturday. With Edin Dzeko, David Silva and Samir Nasri on the bench after their international exertions, Mancini gave Mario Balotelli, James Milner and Adam Johnson the chance to shine and all took it. Balotelli stole the headlines with the acrobatic overhead kick that put City on their way to a ninth successive home league win. His fourth goal in as many games earned Mancini's praise though the red marks that Shay Given showed on his stomach after a second-half challenge from his old team-mate might explain the rejoinder that: "Mario can change in every moment."

It was a good afternoon too for Milner who capped a fine display with City's fourth, a wonderfully precise curler from outside the box. The Villa manager, Alex McLeish, lamented the goals that had gone before which he put down to "amateur defending". Villa scorer Stephen Warnock's missed clearance let in Johnson for City's second while McLeish complained that Balotelli and Vincent Kompany both had too much space to score from Johnson corners.

"I don't think it is too difficult to spot what we had to learn today," he said. "We must defend better at corner-kicks. When we ask people to pick up a man, they must pick them up."

Scorers: Manchester City Balotelli 28, A Johnson 47, Kompany 52, Milner 71. Aston Villa Warnock 65.

Substitutes: Manchester City K Touré 6 (Richards, 66), Silva 6 (Y Touré, 66), Hargreaves (A Johnson, 77). Aston Villa N'Zogbia 5 (Ireland, 55), Bannan 6 (Heskey, 63), Albrighton (Delph, 76).

Booked: Manchester City Barry. Aston Villa Bannan.

Man of the match Balotelli Match rating 7/10.

Possession: Manchester City 53% Aston Villa 47%.

Attempts on target: Manchester City 10 Aston Villa 6.

Referee C Foy (Manchester). Attendance 47,019.

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