Superb first half strikes from Ruben Dias and Bernardo Silva ended Steven Gerrard’s unbeaten start as Aston Villa manager, as Manchester City defeated the Villans 2-1 in an enthralling Wednesday night clash.
City were totally dominant throughout the first half, with their high pressing tactics extremely effective against Aston Villa’s insistence to play out from the back. They made this pressure count with a brilliantly taken goal from Ruben Dias, as the Portuguese centre back curled a long-range effort into the bottom right corner after some Raheem Sterling trickery on the right wing.
Immediately from the restart, Aston Villa offered more of an attacking threat, but the quality of the final ball was lacking; Emi Buendia, Leon Bailey and Matty Cash were all guilty of some questionable decision making in the final third. The problems began to compound for Gerrard’s men, with the luckless Bailey forced off with an apparent groin injury in the 31st minute.
Despite Ollie Watkins’ fantastic hold up play, Villa failed to create anything to even remotely test Ederson. The game seemed all but over after a lightning City counterattack ended with Silva lashing a fierce volley home shortly before half time, in a ruthless move that punished Villa’s loose attacking play.
However, a resurgent Villa emerged from the tunnel after half time, and instantly hit back through another Austin MacPhee special; Douglas Luiz fizzed in a low ball from a corner that was swept in by Watkins, clipping the post on its way to the net.
Beyond this point Villa were undoubtedly the better side, but an equaliser proved elusive – the best chance fell to Carney Chukwemaka whose effort was brilliantly saved by the Brazilian shot stopper. Gerrard’s possession-based style was extremely effective in the midfield, but City’s defence proved too good for this positive play to translate into goals. Joao Cancelo was particularly impressive at both ends of the pitch, as City grimly clung on to leave Birmingham with all three points.
Frosty reception for Grealish’s return
Despite the wishes of Villa’s social media team, it was not an entirely friendly (or memorable) homecoming for the man who was once Villa’s prodigal son. Boos rang around the ground as soon as he began to warm up, and only intensified once he entered the pitch in the 88th minute. It was a quiet few minutes on the pitch for the hundred-million-pound man, whose only notable contribution was a failed piece of skill seconds before the final whistle.
Silva produces a performance worthy of gold
In tightly fought contests, class can sometimes make all the difference. Tonight, it came in the form of Bernardo Silva, who was unstoppable. His goal was a beauty, but arguably more influential was his incredible ability to keep the ball from defenders on the wings, whilst simultaneously orchestrating his team’s attacks. A clear MOTM, and truthfully a reminder of the creativity Villa have sometimes lacked this season without Grealish running things in the final third.
Steven Gerrard (speaking to Amazon Prime):
"Really close to taking something from the game. Second half was really good. We started with too much respect and were too passive. Once we got a foothold we conceded a goal. At 1-0 that is OK. You reset. The second goal was the blow. I said it was important we scored the next goal and we were fantastic second half. We had the two big moments of the second half. The young kid will learn from his experience and his chance. He will get more opportunities. We had a decent penalty shout we didn't get too. Nine out of ten referees outside the box give a foul.
"Players, myself and the staff wanted the reaction. At 2-0 if you go passive they can run away with the game. They can score more. To a man I can't ask for more. We played terrific stuff and had big moments.
On Leon Bailey: "He has a problem we will analyse. He will need an MRI scan. I am going to expect a few niggles because the training intensity has gone up. It is a muscle problem.
"We needed this game at this time. A real acid test. At times, City looked a level above and it was an education. But we said to take the game to the wire and believe in ourselves. We will keep trying to grow and close the gap."
Pep Guardiola (speaking to BBC Sport):
"We make an incredible game because I know how good they are. Steven Gerrard is already a great manager. They know exactly what they want to do with a lot of quality.
"We played 90 minutes exceptional. With the quality Villa to have to concede not many chances. I say to the players, they [the injured players] are not here and are not going to help us win. The academy will help us win.
"When Kevin de Bruyne doesn't play and Phil Foden doesn't play we are not a team to run on the counter attack but that goal, was exceptional from Bernardo Silva.
"We see tomorrow. I don't think so but they were not here. Tomorrow we will assess.
On Jack Grealish: "People can express what they want. If they boo it is because they love him so much. I thought a lot of people were clapping. A warm welcome back to this club. He lives this club more than any other. He decided to take the next step to play in Europe."
Villa take on Leicester at home on Sunday afternoon, in what is a crucial clash in terms of both teams' European prospects.