After a tumultuous few days in which their dreams of a quadruple evaporated and their reputation acquired a foul odour, Manchester City got the result they needed to move closer to the Premier League title.
Although this performances occasionally lapsed into slapdash errors – they conceded after 20 seconds and John Stones was sent off before half‑time – City were mostly superb, particularly Phil Foden. “At times it was like he was from a different planet,” said Aston Villa’s manager, Dean Smith.
After falling behind almost immediately to a strike from John McGinn after a Stones error, City took charge and sashayed into the lead thanks to goals by Foden and Rodri. City dominated for long spells but had to endure difficult moments after Stones’s dismissal. But once Villa, too, were reduced to 10 men – Matty Cash was sent off for a pair of fouls on Foden before the hour – City’s victory did not look in doubt.
“It has been the most difficult season of our lives for many reasons, and for all clubs, and now we just have to win two more games and get a draw to be champion,” Pep Guardiola said. “When you get into the last five games depending only on yourself, it’s a big boost.”
Before kick-off City became the latest club to circulate a statement saying sorry for somehow signing up to the Super League. It was a particularly laughable effort, with the turn of events attributed to momentary forgetfulness. Apparently the City regime had “failed to remind ourselves” of values that are “fundamental to [the club’s] DNA”. Guardiola said the matter was now “a closed chapter”. Asked whether his employers said sorry to him personally, he replied: “I know the guys who I’m working with, they don’t need to apologise.”
City made a shocking start at Villa Park, where Gareth Southgate was on hand to run the rule over several candidates for a place in England’s European Championship squad. He will have been impressed by the way Tyrone Mings and Ollie Watkins began; Stones, not so much. Play had barely begun when Mings surprised City with a quick free-kick down the left that Stones failed to cut out. Watkins pinged a low ball into the centre for McGinn, who arrived at speed to sweep it into the net past an uncharacteristically awkward-looking Ederson.
Soon City started to dominate possession and pushed their hosts back. After 20 minutes Riyad Mahrez unloaded a stinging low effort from the edge of the area to force Emi Martínez into a save for the first time. City were finding their attacking rhythm.
Two minutes later Martínez had to retrieve the ball from the net after City broke through with the sort of devastatingly intricate move that few teams can match. Foden was heavily involved, feeding Mahrez in the box before the Algeria international slipped the ball through to the overlapping Bernardo Silva. The Portuguese cut the ball back from the right into the path of Foden who, having darted into the area, slotted into the net from 10 yards.
Foden began to flourish even more, taunting and hurting with jagged runs and searching passes. Yet still all was not quite right with City.
Five minutes before half-time City took the lead, as Rodri glanced a header into the net from a lovely cross by Silva. But soon City relapsed into carelessness and, after the referee consulted the touchline screen, Stones was sent off for a late tackle on Jacob Ramsey, catching the teenager on the knee after being beaten by him to a bouncing ball. The defender will now miss Sunday’s Carabao Cup final date with Spurs.
Ramsey was withdrawn at half‑time as Smith sent on a second striker, Keinan Davis. Guardiola took off City’s only striker, Gabriel Jesus, and introduced Aymeric Laporte to repair his defence. Not that City sought merely to protect their lead. They would have increased it in the 50th minute if Ilkay Gündogan had not left a pass too close to Martínez when Mahrez was waiting for a tap-in.
Seven minutes later the sides were level – in terms of personnel numbers – as Cash was shown two yellow cards in quick succession. “Stupid and reckless,” said Smith. That rashness helped to settle City, who navigated their way serenely through the remaining half-hour.