Late goals from Bernardo Silva and Ilkay Gundogan ended Aston Villa’s resistance as Manchester City moved top of the Premier League for the first time this season, for a few hours at least, with a hard-earned victory.
Pep Guardiola’s side will be knocked off the summit later on Wednesday if Manchester United beat Fulham, but the determination they showed to claim their sixth successive league win underlined that they are here to stay in this title race.
Villa’s first team, playing their first game since New Year’s Day because of a coronavirus outbreak at the club, showed no after-effects of their 19-day hiatus and produced a dogged defensive display.
They held out until the 79th minute, when Rodri controversially stole the ball off Tyrone Mings and fed Bernardo, who brilliantly fired into the top corner from the edge of the box.
Rodri was offside before he returned to an onside position to challenge Mings and Villa manager Dean Smith was sent off for his protests.
It meant he was not there to see Gundogan make sure of the points from the spot soon afterwards after Matty Cash handled a Gabriel Jesus header, in what was a far more straightforward decision for referee Jon Moss.
City’s perseverance pays off
For long spells on a miserable night at Etihad Stadium it appeared that City’s breakthrough would never come.
Things might have been more straightforward for City had Bernardo converted from close range when a corner was headed into his path after four minutes, but instead Emiliano Martinez made a brave save at his feet and set the tone for a battling Villa performance.
City had 24 efforts at goal before Bernardo eventually broke the deadlock, but 12 of them were blocked and the closest they had come to a breakthrough was when Joao Cancelo’s second-half shot bounced back off the bar.
Villa rode their luck, especially when Martinez denied John Stones from a corner and the ball somehow evaded Gundogan when he appeared certain to follow up and score, but they also had chances of their own.
Bertrand Traore almost made the most of a slip by Kevin de Bruyne but his curling effort was well saved by Ederson, who also had to claw away a goalbound Douglas Luiz effort to secure his side’s fifth consecutive clean sheet.
Villa vibrant on return to action
Villa leave Manchester empty handed, just as they did in their previous Premier League game against United on 1 January, but they deserve great credit for their performance here.
Nine unnamed players and five members of their backroom staff had tested positive for Covid-19 at the start of January, and the club’s training ground only reopened on Sunday.
They had seen their past two league games, against Everton and Tottenham, postponed but this was a reminder of the way they were playing before their season was interrupted.
Smith was December’s manager of the month after his side stayed unbeaten across five games and ended the year in fifth.
They have dropped out of the top half while they have been out of action but on this evidence that is a false position – the defensive improvement that has been the hallmark of their season was again on show here, as was their spirit.
City travel to play League Two side Cheltenham in the FA Cup on Saturday (17:30 GMT) with the game being shown live on BBC One. They return to Premier League action on Tuesday with a trip to West Brom (20:15).
Villa are out of the FA Cup but play their rearranged Premier League game with Newcastle, postponed at the end of November because of Covid-19 cases in the Magpies camp, on Saturday (20:00) as they begin to work through their fixture backlog.
City beat Villa again – the stats
- Manchester City have won 15 of their past 16 Premier League home games against Aston Villa, including each of the past 11 in a row.
- City have kept 10 clean sheets in their 18 Premier League games this season – only in 1976-77 (17 games) have they reached 10 in fewer games in their league history.
- Aston Villa made 10 blocks against City – only Leeds against Liverpool on the opening day have made more in a Premier League game this season (12).
- There were 39 shots in total in this match (28 for City, 11 for Villa) – only Manchester United v Leeds in December has seen more in the Premier League this season (43).
- City’s Bernardo scored his first Premier League goal since July, and his first at the Etihad since netting a hat-trick against Watford in September 2019.
- Gundogan’s penalty was his seventh goal in all competitions this season, his best goalscoring season in his top-flight career.
- With five shots and six chances created, City’s Phil Foden was involved in more shots than in any game in his Premier League career.