The tale of the tape appeared pretty conclusive. Darren Bent, who may eventually cost Aston Villa £24m from Sunderland, settled the match with an archetypal, fox-in-the-box goal, while Edin Dzeko, Manchester City's new £27m striker, missed with a late header from his only scoring opportunity.
Bent modestly described his now customary debut flourish – which took him level with Chelsea's Didier Drogba and United's Wayne Rooney on 82 Premier League goals over the past five seasons – as a "tap-in". Two years earlier, after he fluffed an easier chance to win a match for Tottenham, his then manager famously complained that "my missus could've put that one in". Dzeko's chance was perhaps not in the Sandra Redknapp category, yet understandably he comes with great expectations.
If Bent's encapsulation of the tall, elegant Bosnian's performance as "decent" sounded like damning with faint praise, the logic of the match-winner's own compare-and-contrast verdict was fair. "It was always going to be a lot more difficult for him than me because he is new in this division whereas I've played in it a lot," he said. "He has good quality and showed some nice touches but you're always going to struggle against top centre-halves like [James] Collins and [Richard] Dunne."
In fact, forwards have been filling their boots against Gérard Houllier's defence. Although Dzeko demonstrated an impressive work ethic, it often led him into deep positions, making it hard to establish a rapport with Carlos Tevez, who himself started the match playing off the front. As a consequence, City, for all their dominance, created few genuine chances.
Brian Kidd, the former England coach who is Roberto Mancini's assistant at Eastlands, insisted that City would not have to wait until next season to get the best from Dzeko. "I don't think it'll take him many games at all. His touch, passing and control are all excellent and he links the play well. He's been superb in training, he's a team player and his English is very good.
"Obviously, it's a lot different to the Bundesliga. When I was at Portsmouth helping Paul Hart, he raved about Dzeko. Pompey played Wolfsburg in Europe and put a bid in but couldn't afford him. I believe he'll be a very good buy, but there's an adjustment to make to the Premier League and of course it takes time."
Therein lies City's dilemma. Teams need to grow, with new recruits allowed time to assimilate. However, their vast expenditure means every setback is tantamount to a crisis, and every goal conceded or chance spurned becomes a news event. Kidd, who is familiar with such pressures from his stint as No 2 at Old Trafford, denied that he was trying to take the heat off Mancini and his team by claiming the championship was "United's to lose" and that City's target was a top four place. "Not at all. They've been round the block with Sir Alex [Ferguson]. We certainly give them the respect they deserve. They've been there before. With our lads it's a new experience. But once you win something, it becomes intoxicating. You want more of it."
Prising Bent from Sunderland was intended to restore that feeling to the Villa dressing room. The investment reaped a swift dividend for manager Houllier, with the outstanding Collins detecting "an extra buzz about the place, even in the warm-up". The buzz became a cacophony when Bent, having scarcely touched the ball, followed up in anticipation that the City goalkeeper Joe Hart might parry Ashley Young's shot. When he did, an angled finish created an instant Villa cult hero.
Houllier, though, was focused on Bent's impact in the longer term, starting at Wigan tomorrow. "I thought we needed a striker, not only for six months but for the future," he said. "When I was at Liverpool I signed Emile Heskey and it made a difference; we started winning trophies. At Lyons I signed [the Brazilian striker] Fred and he made a difference as we won two titles. I would say Darren has finishing class. He loves the game, works hard and will improve. I looked at him and thought, 'Yes, this is what we need'."
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