Spectacular Balotelli sees City take over at summit

Manchester City 4 Aston Villa 1: Johnson, Kompany and former Aston Villa favourite Milner also on target in Etihad romp
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The Independent Football

Be careful what you wish for. In the BBC studio for Scotland's Euro 2012 qualifier against Spain on Tuesday, the Aston Villa manager, Alex McLeish, had jokingly hoped for an injury to the in-form Manchester City forward, David Silva, that might sideline him from this fixture.

McLeish half-got his wish, with the Spaniard kept on the bench alongside Edin Dzeko and Samir Nasri and Sergio Aguero and Carlos Tevez absent altogether – one injured, the other in career limbo. Yet so sizeable are City's resources that they could simply replace that quartet with a fluid front four of Mario Balotelli, Yaya Touré, Adam Johnson and James Milner and dismantle a Villa side that had arrived in Manchester unbeaten in the Premier League.

In the process City took full advantage of Manchester United's draw at Anfield to ensure they will travel to Old Trafford for next Sunday's derby with a two-point lead over their neighbours at the summit.

It was Balotelli who put City on course for a ninth successive Premier League home win with a spectacular opening goal after 28 minutes. When Darren Bent's weak near-post header only helped on a Johnson corner, Balotelli reacted instinctively as the ball came his way via a ricochet off Micah Richards.

One touch with his knee lifted the ball head-high and in a flash he engineered an acrobatic overhead kick to bury it past Shay Given. There was no sign of a smile on the scorer's face but his manager, RobertoMancini, was happy with a "fantastic goal" that he felt sparked City into life after a slow start.

Mancini suggested the penny has begun to drop with Balotelli, who has now scored in four successive games. "After he was four or five times on the bench in the last month maybe he understood. He played well, he has scored four goals in a row, he worked for the team," Mancini said.

The Italian, who hit his first career hat-trick in this fixture last December, had taken the fight to Villa even before his goal. He scuffed an early chance when teed up by Touré – the ball running across goal to Milner, who flicked it against the post – and then drew a diving save from Given with an angled drive.

Villa, on the back foot thereafter, were left to rue Gabriel Agbonlahor's 11th-minute miss when the striker outmuscled Joleon Lescott on the left touchline and broke clear on goal. Cutting into the box, he failed to get his shot around Joe Hart, however, and Stephen Warnock's attempt on the rebound was headed to safety by Vincent Kompany.

"I am extremely disappointed because I felt we started well – Gaby had a great chance," said McLeish. "It is a great save by Joe Hart, but you need to take your chances at places like this and to losethe goals the way we did was comedy cuts."

McLeish also lamented Villa's start to the second half when Emile Heskey missed a headed chance and City went straight up the other end and scored. A mistake by Warnock, who completely missed the ball when attempting a clearance, let in Johnson to roll a low shot past Given and inside the far corner.

Villa had conceded only five goals in their unbeaten start but this was their first meeting with opponents from last season's top six, and they were found wanting, not least in defending set-pieces.

Kompany made it three within five minutes of Johnson scoring, as he easily outjumped Bent to head the ball down and beyond Given from another Johnson cross.

With Richards off the pitch after a clash of heads, Warnock made partial amends for his earlier error by lashing a far-post shot in off the crossbar after City had failed to deal with an Agbonlahor cross.

There were 25 minutes still to play but, with Silva duly entering the fray and City bossing possession, it never felt like the start of an improbable comeback. The impressive Milner added a fourth goal with a superb curled strike from 25 yards after Gareth Barry had laid the ball his way.

Milner declined to celebrate against his former club and Mancini, who gave Owen Hargreaves his Premier League debut for City as a late substitute, is not getting carried away just yet. He said: "We know this week will be hard. We played against Aston Villa, we play Villarreal [on Tuesday] which will be a crucial game in the Champions' League for us, and after we have the derby.

"We've played only eight games and still have 30 – there is a long way to go. We should be happy to go to Old Trafford on the top but we should understand that the championship will be long and this position can change every week."

Manchester City (4-2-3-1): Hart; Richards (K Touré, 65), Kompany, Lescott, Clichy; De Jong, Barry; Johnson (Hargreaves, 77), Y Touré (Silva, 65), Milner; Balotelli.

Aston Villa (4-4-2): Given; Hutton, Dunne, Clark, Warnock; Heskey (Bannan, 63), Petrov, Ireland (N'Zogbia, 55), Delph (Albrighton, 76); Bent, Agbonlahor.

Referee: Anthony Taylor.

Man of the match: Balotelli (Man City)

Match rating: 7/10