Manchester City 3 Aston Villa 1

Vassell comes back to haunt Villa as City climb to fourth

Pearce described Vassell's blossoming partnership with Andrew Cole, who added a third in the 82nd minute to quash any prospect of a belated Villa recovery, as the Laurel and Hardy of the top flight, "they complement each other perfectly only without the humour". Yet City have plenty of reason to laugh these days, and not only at the malaise of their bitter rivals, with astute management, a potent attack and a productive youth system that honed three-quarters of their industrious midfield last night offering grounds for genuine optimism.

"I still think we can get much better," said Pearce. "I am reasonably pleased with where we are at the moment but with the run of play I still feel we could have been unbeaten this season and we know we can play much better."

Vassell may not have left Villa Park in a deal worth £2m this summer amid much acrimony, but he played with the intent and passion of a scorned striker here and was welcomed with several gifts by his former employers, beginning after only 210 seconds when Jlloyd Samuel headed the ball over his advancing goalkeeper Stuart Taylor and presented his old team-mate with the easiest of his five City goals this season.

It was a suitable Halloween moment for Villa manager David O'Leary, who must have anticipated the worst when his first-choice goalkeeper Thomas Sorensen injured his back in the warm-up and thus forced a debut upon the former Arsenal reserve.

Worse was to come for the visitors in the 26th minute when Cole and Vassell combined superbly for the latter to volley beyond Taylor after an exquisite chip from his strike partner who, after Liam Ridgewell had scrambled in a 65th-minute goal, made the contest safe with a deflected shot over Taylor eight minutes from time.

O'Leary insisted there were no excuses for the defeat. "We gifted Manchester City their goals and that has been the problem since day one this season. We are not good enough to give teams such a big advantage," he said, before going on to use the possible £64m takeover by the Comer Homes Group as a reason for his current problems.

"It has been a very unsettling period," he added. "Rumours and rumours, talk and talk, but we are not getting any information. I hope something happens or doesn't happen soon because it is very unsettling and it doesn't help you concentrate on the football side. The first I heard about it was on Sunday morning like everyone else. It could be exciting for the club, it depends what comes with it." A few new defenders would not go amiss.

Manchester City (4-4-2): James; Mills, Sommeil (Jihai, h-t), Distin, Jordan; Croft (Sibierski, 69), Ireland, Barton, Musampa; Vassell, Cole (Wright-Phillips, 85). Substitutes not used: Richards, De Vlieger (gk).

Aston Villa (4-4-2): Taylor; Delaney, Mellberg, Ridgewell, Samuel (Berger, h-t; Djemba-Djemba, 75); Milner, Davis, McCann, Barry; Moore (Bakke, 71), Phillips. Substitutes not used: De la Cruz.

Referee: D Gallagher (Oxfordshire).

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