If this is an “emergency”, it is the sort many another would want. Pep Guardiola’s injury crisis proved anything but critical for Manchester City as a performance of authority and excellence was garnished by an improbable strike by Ruben Dias and a gorgeous goal from Bernardo Silva.
Steven Gerrard tended to be a byword for the spectacular in his playing days so perhaps a scorer of great goals was beaten by the sort of brilliance he almost trademarked. Gerrard’s first defeat as Aston Villa manager came courtesy of the club who denied him the title in 2014; the City fans’ chants, referencing Demba Ba, showed they have not forgotten it.
For City, a sixth successive win in all competitions came as Silva’s golden goal rendered Jack Grealish’s return to Villa Park a subplot. The pre-match reception for Grealish was largely appreciative, albeit with a sprinkling of less friendly gestures. The choruses of “Super Jack Grealish” came from the corner populated by the visiting fans. But he was confined to a three-minute cameo, serenaded on to the pitch by chants of “Villa ‘til I die” and a few boos.
It was another occasion when City scarcely needed him. They may be relatively short of numbers but theirs is a team packed with potential scorers. Dias became their 17th player to find the net this season. The Sergio Aguero-shaped hole in their goal return has been filled not by one man but by virtually every one. If it brought Dias level with Harry Kane, the striker they hoped to sign, on one Premier League goal for the campaign, it also tied him with the £100m man.
On the bench, Grealish, who had vowed not to celebrate if he scored, smiled, perhaps out of surprise when Dias connected sweetly with his swinger, meeting Raheem Sterling’s cutback with a left-footed shot from 20 yards. It slipped under Emi Martinez.
Perhaps culpable then, he was blameless when beaten by a seminal, sensational volley from Silva. He met Gabriel Jesus’s cross to cap a wonderful counterattack, begun by Fernandinho with an incisive pass from the edge of his own box.
It was an illustration City came with quality, if not quantity. Guardiola’s bench featured five youngsters, two goalkeepers and the semi-fit pair of Phil Foden and Grealish. City may have seen the game out more comfortably had he felt confident to make earlier changes but his starting 11 had such ability that few will have much sympathy for him.
Ilkay Gundogan and Kyle Walker were unexpected absentees, joining John Stones, Kevin De Bruyne, Ferran Torres and the suspended Aymeric Laporte among the missing, but City began with three shots in the first four minutes. It was a statement of intent in a performance of such vigour that it seemed they were not willing to use the injury list as an excuse.
But Villa contributed much. Gerrard started with two of the trio purchased with the proceeds of Grealish’s sale but Leon Bailey limped off. Emi Buendia, another funded by Grealish, was underwhelming but Villa were spirited. They looked a side with the conviction to believe they could come back from 2-0 down and seemed galvanised by their manager’s half-time team talk. Their goal offered evidence of fine training-ground work by Gerrard.
A corner routine was expertly executed, Douglas Luiz finding Ollie Watkins whose half-volley denied Ederson his 100th City clean sheet. Watkins was terrific, as he has been under Gerrard. Ederson had to make a superb save to deny Carney Chukwuemeka an equaliser when he was released by Luiz.
It meant City need not rue the chances Jesus missed. For Villa, however, their relentlessness spoke to the belief Gerrard has imbued. They were indefatigable but Silva proved inspirational and that, ultimately, was the difference.
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