|Sergio Aguero bagged his 21st league goal of the season|
Manchester City got out of jail against Aston Villa, who very nearly pulled off a well deserved draw for themselves, clawing their way back into the game after being 0-2 down and examining the outgoing Barclays Premier League champions’ fortitude.
For the Citizens, Sergio Aguero, Aleksandar Kolarov and Fernandinho scored the three goals to ensure their side of the victory that helped them overtake both Arsenal and Manchester United into second-place on the league table.
Tom Cleverley and Carlos Sanchez scored the goals for the visitors, who found plenty of joy from set-pieces throughout the course of 90 minutes.
Manuel Pellegrini, in his post-match press conference, claimed it was his side’s fighting spirit that saw them score the decisive third goal, four minutes after Sanchez had equalized for the visitors.
In retrospect: what did we learn from City’s performance that, you could say, was not up to the standard of the champions?
City lacked energy and intensity
Aguero made the most of Brad Guzan’s howler to put his side into the lead after just 3 minutes on the clock.
Villa failed to learn from Guzan’s mistake and kept making unforced errors in possession that led to a couple of more chances for City, but there was a shift in momentum soon after.
The likes of Jack Grealish, Fabian Delph and Leandro Bacuna started seeing more of the ball, and City, with the likes of Yaya Toure, Fernando Reges, Frank Lampard and David Silva in their ranks, failed to cope with the pace at which their opponents played.
There was very little pressing from the home side after the early exchanges, and Villa were allowed time on the ball and oceans of space to maneuver into, which were largely down to the lack of energy from the City side loaded with veterans.
You could also say that Pellegrini’s side deliberately sat deeper and probably sought to pick Villa off on the counterattack, but there was very little pressure on the ball when Tim Sherwood’s side was in possession.
Jesus Navas and Pablo Zabaleta were the shining lights for City
The Spanish winger continued from where he left off against West Ham United, putting in another good performance that probably didn’t get him the deserved praise.
Kieran Richardson, Aston Villa’s left fullback, actually handled Navas pretty well, matching the 29-year old winger for speed and roughening him up with three tackles, though he was successful only on one occasion.
Navas, with his pace, gave City a long ball option, which Martin Demichelis and Toure made use of during the first half, especially.
But he also showed how good a ball carrier he can be – cutting inside from his right flank and carrying the ball to the opposite flank with minimum fuss.
Navas completed all four of his attempted take-ons, though he managed to complete only 2 of his 7 attempted crosses on the day.
Zabaleta was another City player who had a very good outing against Villa. The Argentine fullback was full of energy and tenacity, winning one of his three attempted tackles and all of his aerial duels (2) on the day.
Zabaleta also made 5 blocks near City’s 18-yard box, as he was alert to every possible danger caused by Villa.
Fernando was one of the many weak-links in City’s starting lineup on Saturday
With Khaldoon Al Mubarak, the City chairman, watching on from the stands, a handful of City players knew they were going to be judged and had to put a real shift in.
Fernando, having not made an enviable start to his City career, had another one of his poor games in his first season at the Etihad Stadium.
He slipped often, as did many of his teammates, and failed to take up good positions ahead of the backline. His lack of pace also meant that he was chasing shadows when the likes of Grealish, who completed 7 of his 8 attempted take-ons, deceived him with their movement and speed across the turf.
Kolarov had a mixed performance on his second consecutive start for the reigning English champions. He failed to play with an understanding with his teammates when City had the ball, and he was not very good in a defensive sense either.
The Serbian committed a couple of fouls and failed to win any of his 4 attempted tackles. He, however, was involved in 2 of City’s 3 goals, scoring a brilliant free-kick to double his side’s advantage and then following it up with a very good assist for Fernandinho’s goal that made sure of the victory.
Toure was another one of those players who failed to impress in the presence of the club chairman, even though he was on the pitch only for 45 minutes.
The imperious Ivorian attempted only 17 passes during his vigil, but failed to make any meaningful contribution to City’s attacks.
Collectively, Saturday’s performance summed up City’s season so far, but it also brought to light the massive changes needed to the squad, if Pellegrini’s side is to get back in the title hunt next season.
Fernandinho – first, the game changer and then the savior
The Brazilian’s introduction in the second half saw City play with a lot more vitality and incision, as the midfielder played some delightful passes when in possession and worked hard for the welfare of his side, as well.
Fernandinho’s eye for a pass is often underestimated, as he usually does the donkey work and always plays in the shadows of the likes of Toure, Silva and Samir Nasri, to name a few.
However, on Saturday, it was the 29-year old midfielder who stood out amongst all other midfielders for City on the day.
He completed 90% of his attempted passes, created one goal scoring chance, scored a gem of a goal under pressure and was by no means bad defensively (winning 50% tackles and aerial duels).
Hopefully, with that performance, he has sealed his place in City’s starting XI for the remaining games of the season.
Defensively, City were not good enough
Not only did Aston Villa enjoy as much as 55% ball possession, but also created an impressive 10 chances during their narrow 2-3 defeat to City on Saturday.
Joe Hart had to make 4 saves during the 90 minutes, and the England No.1 nearly cost City two points by failing to punch the ball away from the danger area while coming from his line to deal with the crosses.
I felt that City dealt with Christian Benteke pretty well, winning a good portion of their aerial duels against the buccaneering Belgian, who, however, created his side’s first goal.
Regardless of the systems – 4-4-2 or 4-5-1 – City have lined up in this season, there has always been that worry about the backline when the Blues’ opponents have had possession, and the scenario wasn’t any different against the Villains on Saturday.
Pellegrini and City would be relieved that they managed to secure all three points despite producing a sub-standard performance.
There is a major gulf between City of last season and this season, and it will be interesting to see how the hierarchy at the Etihad Stadium addresses the issues concerning the club.
Villa, though, performed very well and, personally, it wasn’t surprising that this season’s FA Cup finalists took the game to the hosts and very nearly reaped full rewards.