As the home team's third goal hit the net, their assistant manager, Brian Kidd, celebrated in the technical area almost as wildly as he had famously done on the other side of town all those years ago when Manchester United finally moved into sight of a League title. The prize for Manchester City could also be a place in the Champions' League, as long as they can beat Tottenham at Eastlands on Wednesday.
It is the time of season when the fixture list suddenly takes on rare importance, and it has granted City the precious gift of successive home games with their two serious rivals for that coveted position. For once this most unpredictable of clubs took advantage, scoring twice in quick succession just before the interval after falling behind. They deserved the victory, although nerves took hold in an unexpectedly quiet second half before Shaun Wright-Phillips came on to inspire the final flourish.
Villa's brave run, which seemed to have been ended in abrupt fashion by a 7-1 defeat at Chelsea, had revived with four subsequent wins and a draw in five games. When John Carew put them ahead, they had realistic hopes of profiting from City's defensive fallibility, but although Carew later hit the bar, they scarcely threatened to capitalise on abundant possession in the second half.
Their manager, Martin O'Neill, said: "We kept City at arm's length in the first half and looked dangerous on the break. So it's disappointing, but I'm really proud of the team. We started the campaign with a home defeat by Wigan and up until today we shared the least number of defeats, so that tells you about their character."
O'Neill, who recently sent out confused messages about his own intent-ions, will sit down with Villa's owner, Randy Lerner, shortly after the final game at home to Blackburn next weekend and hope – like so many Premier League managers – to win the promise of additional funds to strengthen a team who have been unchanged for six successive games; a rarity in these days of rotation and large squads, which he feels he lacks.
City's manager, Roberto Mancini, who should be able to dismiss all talk of losing his job if fourth place is secured, had words of praise for Patrick Vieira, who did the solid holding job he was bought for, and Adam Johnson, whose tricky wing-play led to both goals in an extraordinary two minutes just before half-time.
Until then Marton Fulop, the Hungarian goalkeeper controversially acquired as an emergency loan, had inspired little confidence and been forced to pick the ball out of his net after Villa's first menacing attack. As James Milner took a quick free-kick, Wayne Bridge allowed Stewart Downing to come inside him and Kolo Touré was too slow to prevent Carew taking the pass and swivelling to beat Fulop, who put a hand on the ball, but no more.
For the next 25 minutes Villa were the more fluent side. Fulop needed two grabs at Milner's powerful drive, and Downing, having switched back to the left, drove past the far post. In between, City had two confident shouts for penalties turned down and the third time they screamed, there was no argument. Stephen Warnock tripped Johnson, who had taken Emmanuel Adebayor's neat pass towards the byline and Carlos Tevez drove the penalty fiercely under Brad Friedel's body.
That began an eventful couple of minutes in which, with the home supporters still celebrating, Touré again let Carew turn and shoot, this time with a thump against the bar. Yet City immediately broke, Johnson keeping his head and feet splendidly to set up an unmarked Adebayor for a tap-in.
"That's a big moment in the game," O'Neill admitted, and his team never quite recovered from it. In a surprisingly quiet second half, Ashley Young whipped in one or two crosses but also missed his team's only real chance of an equaliser, completely misreading the centre that Downing put over as he attempted a stooping header. Slowed down by a harsh tackle by Vieira, Young is unlikely to have done enough in front of the watching Stuart Pearce to earn a place in England's World Cup 23, or perhaps the provisional list of 30 that will be announced on Tuesday week. The same may apply to Downing.
Milner, in contrast, underlined with his unstinting box-to-box work why he has already secured a place in South Africa. Wright-Phillips did himself no harm either after being brought on for the last quarter of an hour in place of Johnson. With a minute to play and City content to attack on the counter, he jinked away from two defenders down the left and fed Craig Bellamy for a fine finish.
Referee: Mark Clattenburg
Man of the match: A Johnson
Match rating: 7/10Reuse content