Manchester City's Roberto Mancini described this game as a cup semi-final and Wednesday's meeting with Tottenham as a final. That could prove confusing, as unless Spurs win it, there will be one further crucial match for each side to play in order to resolve which of them comes fourth in the Premier League table.
City will still have to negotiate a trip to West Ham on Sunday, for one of those games like Liverpool's against Chelsea yesterday that provoke contrasting emotions among supporters of the team with least to play for; West Ham, thrilled at denying Tottenham a Champions League place four years ago by beating them on the final day of the season, will hardly be enthusiastic about easing their near-neighbours' passage by defeating City.
Even then, it is worth remembering, the team finishing highest will only have earned the right to play in a Champions League qualifying round and not the real thing. Such is the reputation of both clubs for shooting themselves in the foot, often when just about to lay hands on something worthwhile, that nothing should be taken for granted.
With that proviso, the cup analogy is nevertheless an interesting one in that finishing fourth in the table is now potentially worth more, in terms of both finance and prestige, than winning the FA Cup itself. While City's impressionable new owners would doubtless like to win a trophy of any sort, especially after a day out at Wembley, Mancini could tell them that the prospect of Champions League football next season is a far greater incentive for potential new recruits.
"If we want to be strong next year, we must buy good players," he said. Speculation persists that fourth place is a prerequisite if he wants to be the manager doing the buying, but the club have long insisted his continued employment is not dependent on joining Manchester United and the other European big boys next season.
Villa's Martin O'Neill will again only have the Europa League to offer as a recruiting tool following this defeat. A third successive finish in sixth place, while commendable enough, will enable him to tell his chairman, Randy Lerner, when they speak next week that further investment is necessary to move even one more step up the ladder. By that time his bargaining stance could also be enhanced by finding himself touted as a possible new manager of Liverpool.
"Manchester City will get very strong next season regardless, so it's a tough old battle," he said. Fielding an unchanged team for a sixth successive match was a tribute to consistency (and good luck with injuries), although O'Neill could argue that he would like stronger competition from the bench. There were certainly no game-changers there when he needed a couple with Villa 2-1 down in the second half. Worryingly for the England manager Fabio Capello's representative, Stuart Pearce, Emile Heskey once again made a late appearance to nothing like the effect achieved by John Carew, who had opened the scoring and then thundered a shot against the bar.
The second incident was, as O'Neill said, "a pivotal moment", coming just after Carlos Tevez had converted an undisputed penalty and just before Emmanuel Adebayor tapped in Adam Johnson's shrewd pass.
Once ahead, City were able to play Villa at their own game of counter- attack, denying them a single dangerous attempt in the second half and wrapping up the points just before full-time as Shaun Wright-Phillips' thrust down the left set up Craig Bellamy. In Johnson and Wright-Phillips (as well as the refusenik Wayne Bridge), City therefore had the more influential England candidates for Pearce to recommend than Villa's crop; the exception, as ever, being the industrious James Milner.
Bellamy's exuberant celebration with his manager enabled Mancini to reiterate that there was no problem between them. "Now we have a big chance and it is in our hands," he said of Wednesday's "cup final". With City, of course, there can always be many a slip twixt cup and lip.
Manchester City (4-2-3-1): Fulop; Zabaleta, Touré, Dunne, Bridge; De Jong, Vieira; Johnson (wright-Phillips,78) Tevez (Richards,88), Bellamy; Adebayor. Substitutes not used Nielsen (gk), Onuoha, Santa Cruz, Garrido, Sylvinho.
Aston Villa (4-4-2): Friedel; Cuellar, Collins, Dunne, Warnock (Delfouneso,74); A Young, Milner, Petrov, Downing; Agbonlahor, Carew (Heskey,74). Substitutes not used Guzan (gk), L Young, Sidwell, Reo-Coker, Beye.
Referee M Clattenburg (Tyne & Wear).
Booked: Manchester City Kompany. Aston Villa Petrov.
Man of the match Vieira.
Attendance 47,102.Reuse content