Premier League: Aston Villa 1 Manchester City 0
For a while now Aston Villa have openly and confidently declared qualifying for the Champions League is their chief objective this season and, on this evidence, after defeating and disposing of Manchester City, they will be in the conversation for the long haul. Leon Bailey blasted Villa in front on 74 minutes and City could not argue it had not been coming on a chastening evening to forget for Pep Guardiola, now an unprecedented winless in four Premier League matches.
Villa were fortuitous Bailey’s strike looped in via Rúben Dias, but by that point they had more than created their own luck with a rip-roaring performance. By the end, City were on the ropes, Ederson reeling as his defence crumbled in front of him. Douglas Luiz, the one-time City midfielder, cracked a shot against a post as Villa hunted for a second.
Often the pre-match pyrotechnics feel somewhat overkill – sometimes it can be hard to escape the notion that the whole occasion about to unravel before our eyes has been frankly overhyped – but this clash between sides third and fourth in the table, both gunning for Champions League places, lived up to its billing as an absorbing contest. These days Villa represent formidable opposition full stop, but they are a particular force here, having won their previous 13 home league matches. The place was rocking from the moment the players emerged from the tunnel.
Put simply, City could not live with Villa’s intensity, insatiable press or downright gumption. If anything captured quite how uncomfortable a ride this was for the champions, it was the sight of Erling Haaland hurtling into Ederson’s 18-yard box to clear the ball to safety, clawing his foot around the ball to avert another wave of Villa pressure. It was almost a case of anywhere will do, with Haaland hooking the ball to halfway and straight back into Villa’s laps. The shot count at half-time was 13-2 in Villa’s favour, though the teams went in level despite the hosts’ dominance. Unai Emery marched down the tunnel, a few yards in front of Guardiola, who was deep in conversation with his assistant, Juanma Lillo. For Ederson, a chance for a breather.
John McGinn, the Villa captain, was omnipresent and conducted a magnificent performance. McGinn was at the heart of almost all of Villa’s good work and his audacious pass, sprayed from left to right amid seemingly little danger, was the catalyst for their first real chance. McGinn located Bailey and the Villa forward tested Ederson with a smacked shot. Ederson had to keep out a swerving Bailey strike and then he volleyed over from a sumptuous Lucas Digne cross. Ederson also saved smartly from Pau Torres. On the stroke of the interval, Douglas Luiz headed in from another fine Digne cross but the Villa left-back – just about – ran the ball out of play in the buildup. The assistant referee Akil Howson immediately raised his flag on the far side.
It was, of course, Haaland who went closest to scoring for City in a first half which they spent much of on the back foot. Emiliano Martínez, who 12 months ago was well en route to clinching the Golden Glove award in Qatar, repelled Haaland’s initial shot after the City striker latched on to a Phil Foden pass but when Bernardo Silva recycled the ball, the Argentina goalkeeper was again called into action. Silva stood up a cross to the back post and Haaland directed it goalwards, but Martínez pushed the ball clear with an incredible, instinctive two-handed save.
Perhaps it was inevitable that the tempo would drop a little in the second half but there was always a sense that things were simmering beneath the surface.
Haaland zig-zagged clear of three Villa shirts on halfway but delayed his pass for Foden and when he did release the ball it was too late and Foden was offside.
It was that kind of evening. City seemed to take the sting out of Villa until McGinn sent a cool right-foot effort dribbling inches wide of a post a few minutes after the hour. Silva cheaply surrendered possession and Bailey fed McGinn, who chopped inside Dias before sending a shot just off target. With 66 minutes on the clock, every City player was camped behind the ball, waiting for Pau Torres to pick his pass. Guardiola stood, hands clasped behind his back.
For Villa, the ultimate lasting image was Emery punching the air as Bailey wheeled away in celebration. For City, an awkward, if surely not, costly slip in their fight to defend their crown.