Manchester City’s sixth consecutive victory derived from a scintillating Bernardo Silva goal that oozed quality from start to finish. Aston Villa can be proud of the fight taken to Pep Guardiola’s team but they succumbed to the classier side, as so many others have.
Given the six major players who were ruled out, Guardiola will be overjoyed at how his side refused to be intimidated by a raucous opposition support and were able to repel the speed of Villa on the counter while displaying their familiar silky attacks. Towards the end City’s backbone was evident when Emiliano Buendía tapped the ball to Carney Chukwuemeka who seemed certain to equalise only for the excellent Ederson to save. It was an apt microcosm of an entertaining evening.
On returning to his former club Jack Grealish was fit enough to start on the bench alongside Phil Foden. Meanwhile Kyle Walker, Ilkay Gündogan and John Stones joined Kevin De Bruyne and Ferran Torres on the injured list, with Aymeric Laporte suspended.
After two consecutive wins to kick-start his tenure Steven Gerrard hoped for a third positive result by configuring his XI in a 4-3-3. However his side had problems immediately. City, via João Cancelo and Gabriel Jesus, thrust at Emiliano Martínez’s goal and twice won corners as a pattern was set. Villa had the same challenge City set for virtually every opponent: how to snatch possession from their expert ball-hoggers.
Douglas Luiz showed the way by pickpocketing Fernandinho and feeding John McGinn, whose expert pass in behind released Ollie Watkins. City were splayed open but when Watkins found Leon Bailey from the left, his shot was blocked by a flailing Oleksandr Zinchenko.
A roar emanated around Villa Park from the faithful who had been listening to taunts of “Only one Grealish”. But they soon saw Raheem Sterling cut in from the left and float over a cross that removed the home rearguard and was just too high for Silva, City’s nominated No 9.
The contest had an invigorating pace. Buendía burned down the left and on turning infield had to be marshalled by a clutch of City players. They could do nothing, though, when Douglas Luiz flipped the ball high and ran on to his own pass before driving in a ball City managed to scramble away. Villa were forced to scramble themselves when Silva skated through, fed Sterling, and only marginally missed an attempted backheel finish.
But City were soon to strike. This was due to the bursts from Zinchenko and then Sterling who reached the left byline, pulled the ball all the way back to Dias and – from 20 yards out – the defender beat Martínez with a peach of a finish, finding the right corner via a deflection off Bailey.
If this was good, what followed was one of the season’s finest goals. In traffic by his area Riyad Mahrez somehow slipped the ball to Fernandinho. The Brazilian’s raking pass decorated the move by reaching Jesus who, after glancing across, spied Silva and curled over the ball with pinpoint precision. Silva’s volley was sweetly struck to allow Martínez no chance.
Inside two minutes of the second half Silva became the culprit as Villa scored. Douglas Luiz swung in a corner, Silva dawdled, and Watkins engineered his own volley to beat Ederson, in off the right post.
This was a lifeline that enthused the watching Prince William and infuriated Guardiola. Cancelo responded by firing off a shot that went for a corner and Villa defended Mahrez’s delivery. Zinchenko took aim shortly after but his effort on goal was wild.
Ashley Young had replaced an injured Bailey in the first half and his quick breaks looked to catch Nathan Aké and Dias slumbering. City remained the dominant force but had to be careful as Villa’s spirit was undeniable. When Cancelo bundled over the effervescent Watkins it was a measure of the champions’ frustration. McGinn’s high parabola which landed on Watkins’ head and Dias’s subsequent coming together with Ezri Konsa in the area raised City heartbeats, too. However VAR vindicated Mike Dean’s decision not to award a penalty.
Villa refused to tire, posing City questions until the end by punching routes up field. At the final whistle, with Grealish on for a late cameo booed by his former fans, he and his teammates were relieved to have claimed a toughly earned win and another precious three points.