It was a Manchester spring evening that might have been dragged straight from the pages of Morrissey’s recent memoirs: stupendous rain, acute longing and a dreadful sense of foreboding. But this time in the humdrum town, Manchester City did not let anyone down.
Which is not to say that they did not test the nerves of their supporters. For over an hour it was a special sense of agony inflicted upon the home fans as they awaited the goals that would tell them that finally they were in the box seat to win this damned title, after all the twists and turns of the last few months and the march of Liverpool, recently curtailed.
It began for the home fans as a night of singing unflattering songs about Steven Gerrard and his error against Chelsea at Anfield, but by the start of the second half it had descended into pensive mutterings from the home fans and the occasional piece of unsolicited advice from the stands. Aston Villa had parked the bus, resolutely, unapologetically but - with a formation that was basically 6-3-1 - quite effectively.
Four points from their last two home games would almost certainly be enough to see City to their second Premier League title in three years, but a draw tonight was not the way the City fans envisaged this game unfolding. What they wanted was a win that would set them up nicely for the visit of West Ham on Sunday when they could look forward to finishing the job with a margin for error.
As the new leaders of the division by two points, a draw will surely be enough for City to win the title on Sunday. Were they to finish level on 84 points, City’s goal difference is 13 superior to that of Liverpool who must pin their hopes now on Sam Allardyce’s side winning at the Etihad to change the destiny of the title race. It was an anguished wait for the home crowd for the two Edin Dzeko goals in five minutes that settled the game.
By the end it was a cruise with Paul Lambert giving a chance to Callum Robinson and Jack Grealish, two young prospects from the club’s academy, before Stefan Jovetic, a City substitute, added the third goal. Yaya Toure scored a brilliant fourth. Even the rain stopped momentarily, and the mood changed to one of jubilation.
Before the goals, it was a familiar sense of discomfort, pain, frustration and anxiety that City inflicted upon their supporters in the first half. Every one of their attacks was a little less certain than the last. Every hesitation in front of goal a little more agonising than the previous spurned effort. Their team were so near to closing the deal, but first there was the traditional paralysis of nerve with the title in sight.
The first half was a series of attacks from City that petered out in the face of 11 Villa shirts between them and the goal. Had Brad Guzan not managed to scramble away Toure’s shot on 12 minutes you could have imagined both teams falling into the roles most had prescribed for them before the match, with City the comfortable victors. But with every failed effort on the Villa goal, so the doubts crept in.
There were reams of possession for City but very few clear chances on goal of any note. The best of the first half came in time added on at the end when James Milner got down the right and picked out Samir Nasri in the area. His volley from close range was just wide of Guzan’s post. Other than that they struggled to break down Lambert’s team.
There was one heart-in-the-mouth moment for City when Andreas Weimann broke forward from his own half on the counter attack. With Pablo Zabaleta running across to cover, the Villa striker did not have the pace or the confidence to carry his run on to goal and shot from distance, clipping the City full-back on the way and winning a corner.
There was a chance for Dzeko five minutes after half-time when Toure played a ball over the top to the striker but it ran off his toe and through to Guzan, to groans from an increasingly worried home support. The Villa goalkeeper made another save from Aleksandar Kolarov before finally the breakthrough came for the home team.
The two Dzeko goals were similar in their build-up and execution. Both came from Zabaleta crosses from the right after he had been played in by David Silva, substituted before the end as he nurses a long-term ankle injury. For the first goal, Dzeko met Zabaleta’s cross first time with his right foot to score. The second time he tidied up the loose ball after Nasri’s original shot was saved.
The mood changed, and City were on their way to the brink of the league title. There was a brief scare on 83 minutes when Weimann hit the bar with a header but Jovetic got the third a few minutes later with a drive from the edge of the area. It was left to Toure to apply the tour de force, and what a fantastic goal the fourth was. He surged forward from deep inside his own half and, urged on by the home crowd, angled his run right and then in on goal.
Holding off the Villa defence on his own, like a 18-year-old among the Under-11s, Toure beat Guzan for City’s 100th goal of City’s league season. That is one more than Liverpool have scored so far. Pellegrini’s team are one point away from the title with only West Ham in their way. Surely they will not blow it now?
Manchester City (4-2-3-1): Hart; Zabaleta, Kompany, Demichelis, Kolarov; Toure, Garcia; Milner (Jovetic 60), Silva (Fernandinho 76), Nasri; Dzeko (Negredo 86).
Aston Villa (3-5-2): Guzan; Vlaar, Baker, Clark (Robinson 79); Lowton, Delph, El Ahmadi, Westwood, Bertrand (Grealish 87); Weimann, Bowery (Bacuna 59).
Man of the match Toure.
Match rating 7/10.
Referee: M Oliver.