Aston Villa 0 Manchester City 0
The Rémi Garde era is up and running and some hope has returned to these parts after Aston Villa produced a performance full of endeavour and spirt to end a run of seven successive defeats and frustrate the league leaders. Villa remain anchored to the bottom of the table but there were some positives signs for the home supporters to cling to on an afternoon when Manchester City were uncharacteristically profligate in front of goal.
Raheem Sterling and Kevin De Bruyne were both guilty of wasting excellent chances to give City the lead and the sense that this was not going to be the visitor’s day was confirmed in injury-time, when Fernando’s thumping header from the substitute Kelechi Iheanacho’s cross cannoned back off the crossbar.
There were still a few goalmouth skirmishes to endure after that and Villa were desperately hanging on come the end, with the final whistle greeted with the sort of celebrations that would normally be reserved for a victory. As for City, it is impossible to look on the result as anything other than two points dropped and their disappointment was compounded by a first-half injury to Wilfried Bony, who limped off with a pulled hamstring.
Garde had made his intentions clear from the start. All four of the players recruited from Ligue 1 this summer were restored to the lineup in a team that showed six changes from the side that were comprehensively beaten at Tottenham Hotspur on Monday, and there was an intensity about Villa’s play in the opening stages that represented quite a shift from what has gone before.
City, on the other hand, looked flat. Manuel Pellegrini had warned his players about the dangers of coming up against a team with a new manager but the message seemed to go unheeded in the opening 45 minutes. Yaya Touré, once again retained in the No10 role, could be seen throwing an arm in frustration after Pellegrini demanded more.
City, nevertheless, looked the more likely side to score in the first half. Aleksandar Kolarov forced Brad Guzan into an untidy save at the near post in the 17th minute and from the corner that followed Fernando, stood on the corner of the six-yard box, lashed wildly over the crossbar.
The game was tight and frenetic during that opening period and, unfortunately, featured a couple of acts of simulation at both ends of the pitch. Nicolás Otamendi was booked, harshly as it turns out, for fouling Carles Gil when the Spaniard took flight despite no contact. At the other end Sterling was guilty of a clear dive following a fine City breakaway.
De Bruyne, deployed as a striker for the remainder of the first half following Bony’s injury, executed a lovely lay-off with his back to goal to find Touré, who slid the ball into Sterling’s path. Scampering clear in the inside left channel, Sterling checked inside Ciaran Clark and made far too much of what was minimal contact at best. Craig Pawson, the referee, was unimpressed.
After Pellegrini reconfigured City’s attack at the interval, with Sterling swapping places with De Bruyne, the visitors began to lay siege to the Villa goal. Guzan almost made a hash of dealing with a Kolarov free-kick but two minutes later was in the right place at the right time when Sterling, totally unmarked four yards out, met a Jesús Navas centre with a point-blank header that hit Guzan on the head.
Navas, Bony’s replacement, was enjoying himself on the City right, exploiting the space that opened up behind Jordan Amavi, who impressed going forward but never looks convincing without the ball. It was another cross from the Spaniard that presented De Bruyne with a golden chance to score inside the six-yard box but the Belgian, trying to backheel into the net, succeeded only in kicking the ball against his other leg.
Villa, to their credit, remained full of commitment, although it was the introduction of Fabian Delph, who replaced Touré, that raised the decibel levels among the home supporters. After being booed, hissed and subjected to various less than complimentary chants during the previous 78 minutes, the former Villa midfielder came in for more abuse.
It was the late arrival of Rudy Gestede, though, that threatened to generate the most controversy. After City had kicked the ball out to allow Charles N'Zogbia to receive treatment, Gestede took the throw-in and returned it towards Joe Hart at some pace. The City goalkeeper was unable to control the ball and conceded a corner from which Gestede, of all people, swept a first-time left-footed shot that skimmed the roof of the net. It is a safe bet that all hell would have let loose had it gone in.