City's old boy rises to the task

Aston Villa 1 Manchester City 1
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The Independent Football

When he scored last night against the club for whom he played for nine years, Richard Dunne did not so much as break a smile or clench a fist, although really, after all that had happened, the moment needed no embellishment.

He chose not to make an issue of the manner in which he was sold on transfer deadline day last month having been refused by City the pay-off he believed he was owed. He did not let the flippant comments about him from the City hierarchy spoil the moment. He simply allowed his team-mates to engulf him in embraces and everyone else to make their own minds up about how he felt.

Up in the directors' box, the Manchester City executive chairman Garry Cook might have been moved to reflect on that ill-advised comment he once made about Dunne's lack of appeal to those hallowed commercial markets of the Far East. Cook is the chief culprit for making Dunne's exit from City so unhappy, at least according to the player himself, and football has a happy habit of tripping up those who would seek to rule it.

Dunne's goal did not decide this match, but it certainly came to define it. His reaction to scoring against the club he captained up until the end of last month was a dignified act by a player who saw the worst times of City in recent years and was denied a place in their bright future. It was recognised immediately by the home fans, some of whom even applauded Dunne as he returned to his own half after scoring.

This evening was supposed to be all about Gareth Barry, who was subjected to the very worst abuse that Villa Park could muster. Which is not to say it was too bad. He was booed a lot and the Villa fans sang a song about there being "only one greedy bastard" but apart from the supporter at the Holte End who waved £20 notes at Barry every time he went over to take a corner none of them seemed to be making too much effort.

With all eyes on Barry, returning to Villa Park for the first time since his £12m departure in the summer, it would have to be Dunne who stole the show and almost secured the three points for Villa. Craig Bellamy snatched the equaliser for City in the 67th minute, and they take fourth place with a game in hand on the leaders, but they were certainly not allowed it all their own way.

It is a new experience for City to be treated like a member of the Premier League's ruling elite but that is the reaction that their kind of wealth now attracts, especially at a club like Villa who once could have claimed a similar kind of status to their opposition last night. That has all changed but Martin O'Neill's side put on a magnificent performance nonetheless and they might just have edged this game.

It is a sign of how far these two clubs have come in the last two years that there was so much at stake in a game played at a breathtaking pace for most of the night. Villa rose to the occasion, pushing City back relentlessly. Their supporters might have been hung up on Barry but it looked like his former team-mates had got over it a lot more quickly.

The power of Mark Hughes' squad is starting to tell and that he could bring on Stephen Ireland and Roque Santa Cruz to win this game was crucial, in fact the former could even be said to have been decisive. As for Bellamy, his finish was emphatic and he outshone Carlos Tevez on the night.

With Emmanuel Adebayor back in the team after his suspension, City looked closer to the blueprint that Hughes has for them. Villa, however, were about them from the first minute. Watched by Fabio Capello, Gabriel Agbonlahor was paired in attack with John Carew and the two of them refused to allow the away defence a moment's rest.

The Villa goal was an embarrassment for Hughes' defence but most of all the curiously leaden-footed Barry who was supposed to be marking Dunne. Stephen Warnock struck a corner from the right wing with a wicked dip and speed to it. Dunne connected with the ball while Barry hardly got off the balls of his feet before it was in the net.

Hughes could joke later that he would have to change that in the future but it would not have been quite so funny if City had not found a way back into the game. Their best chance of the first half was Adebayor's header, tipped over by Brad Friedel. Villa had half-chances before the hour to finish their opponents off. Dunne connected with another corner, this time the ball flew wide. James Milner missed the target with a shot. James Collins had another blocked. O'Neill reacted with despair.

Only when the hour mark passed did City force their way back into the game. The replacement of the limping Nigel de Jong with Ireland was critical. Ireland picked the ball up from Shaun Wright-Phillips and played Adebayor into the right channel of the area. Adebayor's cut back was met first time by Bellamy for the equaliser.

This was not the spectacular result that will have sent City into the international break one win away from drawing level with Chelsea at the top of the Premier League. But it did say something about their durability and their ability to come back against a very good side – not qualities that have been a feature in their immediate past. There are signs that the masterplan might yet be coming together for Hughes.

Aston Villa (4-4-2): Friedel; Cuellar, Collins, Dunne, Warnock; Milner, Petrov, Sidwell, A Young (Reo-Coker, 81); Agbonlahor, Carew (Heskey, 69). Substitutes not used: Guzan (gk), Delph, Shorey, Beye, Gardner.

Manchester City (4-2-3-1): Given; Zabaleta, Touré, Lescott, Bridge; De Jong (Ireland, 50), Barry; Wright-Phillips, Tevez (Santa Cruz, 68), Bellamy; Adebayor. Substitutes not used: Taylor (gk), Richards, Johnson, Sylvinho, Petrov.

Booked: Aston Villa: Petrov; Manchester City: De Jong, Wright-Phillips.

Referee: M Dean (Wirral).

Man of the match: Dunne.

Attendance: 37,924.