David Silva was conducting a midfield master class. The diminutive Spaniard was seemingly afforded the keys of Villa Park, finding pockets of space at will, but the score was still 0-0 entering the closing stages. No bother. A blitz begun by Yaya Toure and ended by Sergio Agüero in the space of six minutes unlocked a resolute Aston Villa defence and the points returned to Manchester.
Biding their time and doing just about enough is how it’s been so far for Manchester City this term. The visitors emerged victorious from a complacent first-half against Hull last week, and were far from being at their most fluid on Saturday night against Paul Lambert’s tenacious side. But while the media spotlight flickers from Chelsea’s fast start to the continual struggles of others in the north-west, Manuel Pellegrini’s team look as though they are slowly warming to the season, rotating their goalkeepers, doings things their way.
City have now scored six goals in the last ten minutes of matches – more than any other side. Putting on the after burners in the game’s dying embers is the hallmark of Champions, and with Silva’s patience and the belief in class prevailing, few should bet against them retaining their Premier League crown on this evidence.
Blitzing teams nearly brought Liverpool their first league title in 24 years last campaign, but it is now the side who eclipsed them on the home straight that has developed a habit for not taking their foot off their opponent’s throat. Even a lukewarm run-out in the Capital One Cup against Sheffield Wednesday morphed from a tepid affair of little significance into a second-half bloodbath through seven unanswered goals.
The latest show of relentlessness was forewarned on the stroke of half time. Shots were fired as City clocked a remarkable five attacks on Villa’s goal in the space of the one additional minute. It would come to nothing, but the visitors were fast out the traps upon the restart. Agüero latched onto James Milner’s pass only to strike the foot of Brad Guzan’s left-hand post and the American palmed Silva’s deflected shot out of harm’s way, either side of a swift Villa counter-attack which saw the recalled Joe Hart make a smart save at the feet of Kieran Richardson.
This is October but, make no mistake, City didn’t want to fall further behind Chelsea in the title race. Poor away form derailed their title hopes last year, and a repeat of the 3-2 reverse at Villa Park just over 12 months ago coupled with a win at Stamford Bridge on Sunday for Jose Mourinho’s side over Arsenal would have opened up a seven-point gap between the two front-runners. As it is, three away successes and a battling point at Arsenal suggest they are set to mount a much sterner title defence than the 11-point surrender to their bitter rivals two seasons ago.
On Saturday, illness struck in the Villa camp prior to kick-off once more, after being severely affected leading up to the 3-0 home defeat to Arsenal last month. Losing the speed of the stricken Gabriel Agbonlahor didn’t make for any less comfortable an evening for Vincent Kompany and Eliaquim Mangala for the best part of an hour, before Pellegrini identified a way of converting his side’s 70 percent possession into a meaningful advantage.
The Chilean recognised the need to ‘go back in order to go forward’, as Gary Neville described Fernandinho’s replacement of Edin Dzeko shortly after the hour-mark. The withdrawal of the injured Fernando had resulted in a period of dominance for the home side that was nullified by the additional man in midfield. Villa came to play, but despite the return of Christian Benteke from a seven-month injury lay-off lifting the home crowd, the constant ceding of the ball ultimately took its toll on wearied claret and blue legs.
Toure, who had hitherto epitomised City’s underwhelming displays, benefited from being pushed further forward in the role of a physical presence vacated by Dzeko. The Ivorian seems far happier when allowed to roam and it was his burst of acceleration and guided finish, reminiscent of that goal against Villa at the Etihad last season, which finally breached the hosts with eight minutes remaining. For all Villa’s hard work, few could argue with the outcome – their third successive defeat – that was put beyond doubt when Agüero latched onto Milner’s pass to blast in a second, and his fifth league goal in as many away games.
While question marks still linger over City’s ability to replicate their domestic form on the continent, consecutive away wins have now propelled them to second in the league, with Chelsea in their sights. The pre-season favourites occupy one and two: Catch them if you can.