With United going top for the first time in four months, there was added pressure to Mancini and his charges for today`s visit to Villa Park. City`s form away from home was poor in January and they hadn`t won in their last four attempts although, Villa hadn`t won at home in six games, picking up only two points in that time.
City`s strike partnership of Aguero and Dzeko was looking potent though as both players were in the top seven for goals or assists per game with Dzeko edging leading the way with one every 75 minutes compared to Aguero`s 82 minutes. Aguero has scored 15 goals this season (from 73 shots, 56% of which were on target), whilst Dzeko has scored 12 goals (from 70 shots, of which 61% were on target) .
Mancini decided on a slightly less attacking line up today and was of course without Balotelli who was serving the last of a four match ban. The team sheet read as follows: Hart, Zabaleta, Kompany, Lescott, Kolarov, Barry, De Jong, Milner, Johnson, Silva and Aguero. The bench consisted of: Pantillimon, Richards, Dzeko, Pizarro, Savic, Nasri and Clichy. So no Richards, Savic, Clichy or Nasri as Mancini preferred Zabaleta, Kompany, Kolarov and Milner in their stead.
City kicked off the match playing right to left and lined up with Milner on the left and Johnson on the right, with Silva playing centrally just behind Aguero. The formation had extra width which should create more space for Silva and Aguero as the Villa defence got stretched.
First shot of the match came in the second minute as Aguero wriggled free of his marker, turned and struck a neat, low shot which saw Given scrambling across his goal to save.
Johnson and Silva combined well in the eighth minute, on the right side of the Villa box to create a near chance for the Englishman, but Dunne managed to clear the ball out to touch.
City`s build up play was looking excellent and the movement and passing would change speed suddenly. It looked like it was only a matter of time before a break-through came as Villa looked lethargic and slow. Possession statistics for the first ten minutes showed City domination with nearly 75% of the ball.
City`s defence looked on top when Villa did sporadically attack and when Villa tried to play the ball through midfield, City were forcing them to play the ball back to Given with alarming regularity.
By the fifteenth minute, the game seemed to have slowed down and Villa were starting to see a little more of the ball and on the stroke of seventeen minutes Villa won a free kick on the right of midfield after a De Jong foul. The ball was floated past the far post for Dunne who rose highest and headed on target. Luckily for City, Hart`s positioning was impeccable.
City had a great chance on nineteen minutes after Silva and Johnson again combined well to make a chance for Barry who struck a great shot through a crowded penalty area which was only just saved by Given.
The game then through a real lull as City dominated possession but lacked the final ball. There was the odd touch of brilliance by Silva and Aguero and it wasn`t until the twenty fifth minute when Silva found the run of Milner with a defence splitting pass that City again burst into life. First Milner`s shot was pushed out for a corner and then Johnson struck the Villa post with Given beaten hands down. But still the score was 0-0.
For the next few minutes City were camped out in the Villa defensive area with David Silva at the centre of everything. It was backs against the wall stuff for Villa. The breakthrough seemed to have come in the 29th minute when Silva again found Aguero. The Argentinian danced through the Villa defence and seemed destined to score before skying the ball inexplicably.
On the stroke of 33 minutes City nearly scored again as Johnson got past his marker to the by-line and ran straight into the penalty box. His cut back was inch perfect for Aguero, but the City marksman again fluffed his lines making poor contact with the ball when he should have done much better.
City were playing brilliantly and the football was wonderful, but each attack was ending in an anti-climax and the feelings of ‘not again` were beginning to surface.
Villa won a corner in the 42nd minute and they almost got lucky as Dunne once again out-jumped the City defence, but saw his attempt go over the City bar.
City nearly made the breakthrough in the 43rd minute after Silva played a slide rule pass to find Kolarov`s run on the left. The full-back played a great low cross to Aguero who was beaten to the ball by Collins when it looked like he should have been there first.
As the half drew to a close it seemed that history was indeed repeating itself as despite dominate play and a higher share of possession, City had once again failed to turn this into goals. All too often when the ball was played into the box, only one or two City players were there attempting to meet it.
Villa kicked off the second half as neither teams made changes and after an early flurry by Villa, it was City who had the first real attack and forced a corner in the 46th minute. It was met by the head of Kompany who headed straight for goal before the head of the diving Hutton cleared the ball out for a corner.
In the forty eighth minute, Villa won a corner on the City left after a scrambled clearance by Lescott. The ball was easily cleared and City were soon in possession of the ball again.
Villa had definitely upped their pace at the start of the first half and were forcing City deeper and this was leaving Aguero isolated up front and not allowing the Blues to break with a d pace.
On the stroke of 52 minutes, Zabaleta picked up the ball in midfield and made a direct run towards the box only to be up ended by Bent a yard outside. Up stepped Silva who curled a wonderful ball toward the far post. Lescott edged in front of Collins and met the ball with his head. Once again though, the chance wasn`t converted to a goal as the ball flew wide. How many more chances would City need to put this one to bed.
City`s best chance of the half came in the 56th minute after Silva once again found Zabaleta on the right wing. The defender cut inside and ran toward the box before unleashing a ferocious shot which the keeper barely parried.
Another chance fell City`s way in the 59th minute with Silva again involved as his perfect pass found Kolarov unmarked on the left. Kolarov put in a powerful cross which both Silva and Aguero missed by inches. The number of chances falling City`s way were outstanding, but for some reason, they had failed to convert any of them and this must have been a big worry for Mancini.
First yellow card of the game was given to Petrov of Villa for felling Silva on the edge of the box on the City right. Silva struck a curling shot that was aimed at the top corner. Collins managed to get in the way and put the ball out for a corner. Silva stepped up and curled a high ball to the far post. It was met by Barry who headed the ball back along the six yard line before being struck into the back of the net on the half volley by none other than Joleon Lescott. City finally had the break through and the score looked much better now at 1-0.
Another chance fell to Silva second later after Johnson made the by line yet again and cut the ball back. Silva`s shot was parried then saved by the keeper but things were looking better and the goal seemed to have energised City.
Second booking of the game was given to City old boy Richard Dunne who showed his frustration by going through the back of Aguero after the ball had been played. City then had a fair shout for a penalty after Kolarov`s cross was deflected by Alan Hutton`s hand inside his own penalty area.
Villa then changed things as the rather ineffective Heskey was replaced by N`Zogbia whose first effort in the match was to bring down Zabaleta and give away a free kick.
A surprising statistic for the first 25 minutes of the second was the lack of penetration by Aston Villa having played only 3% of that time in the City final third.
City were looking more relaxed in possession now having scored their first and they began passing the ball around the pitch with confidence making Villa chase everything.
There was a short interlude in play in the 75th minute as a streaker entered the fray and was quickly despatched by the stewards and police.
Soon after the enforced break, another City old boy entered the fray as Stephen Ireland replaced Albrighton. But in all fairness it was looking like Villa would need ten substitutions to win this game.
With ten minutes to go Villa began to pass the ball around but still had to resort to the long ball to gain any penetration. However as Wimbledon of past have shown this can be very effective and the Birmingham side won a corner in the seventy ninth minute. The chance was easily dealt with but it demonstrated how fragile a 1-0 lead could be in the Premier League.
Frustration was beginning to creep into the Villa players game as they gave away free kick after free kick, all the time arguing with the ref. The City players were calmly sticking to their jobs, passing the ball around until chances presented themselves.
In the 83rd minute wonderful work by Lescott on the left of City`s midfield saw Milner played through. The midfielder cut the ball back toward Aguero who narrowly missed making it 2-0.
The next break in play brought City`s first substitution as Nasri replaced Adam Johnson, who had been less effective in the second half than he had in the first.
With three minutes left on the clock Villa spent more than thirty seconds in the final third of the pitch for the first time in the game. They earnt a corner on the City left. The ball was played toward the penalty spot and met by Cuellar, who was totally unmarked but managed only a header over the bar.
Villa then received another yellow which could easily have been a red as N`Zogbia went in with malice on De Jong. As play stopped, Aguero was withdrawn as Dzeko was thrown on to give City some extra height to deal with Villa`s long balls.
Villa won another corner on the stroke of 90 minutes and if not for the fantastic reflexes of Hart, Villa would have had an undeserved point out of the game. That save by Hart was simply magnificent and must certainly of saved City from losing two points.
City`s final substitution then followed as Richards replaced Silva in order to shut up shot for the final few seconds.
Richard Dunne was then replaced by Baker after a nasty collision with Hart followed by an even worse landing.
City played out the final few seconds comfortably to take the three points, go back to the top of the table and put the poor away form behind them. They were still profligate in front of goal, but with a stopper like Hart between the sticks, one goal was all they would usually need.
Joe Hart – 9.0
Without doubt the finest keeper in Europe this year and is a Championship winner. Thank goodness Joe Hart plays for City.
Pablo Zabaleta – 7.5
Went forward well and faced little challenge defensively. Combined well with Johnson in the first half.
Vincent Kompany – 7.5
Dealt with everything he faced in the air and looked comfortable on the ball.
Joleon Lescott – 8.0
Scored the winner and looked good in the air. Performed a wonderful trick on the left wing near the end of the game and is probably playing his best football at the moment.
Aleksander Kolarov – 6.0
Put in some good crosses but looks weak in the tackle and not as good as the players around him. Definitely our weakest player today along with Johnson.
Gareth Barry – 8.5
Hart just edged Barry for man of the match today. Barry rarely gave the ball away and broke up the Villa play with ease. A vital cog in our midfield.
Nigel De Jong – 7.0
Put in some great tackles and broke up play well. Was guilty of giving the ball away on occasion.
James Milner – 8.0
Industrious and tenacious. He had a part in a lot of the good build up play the City made. Enjoying a run out in the team.
Adam Johnson – 6.0
Made some good runs in the first half but completely disappeared in the second half. Has all the tricks but just doesn’t deliver often enough.
David Silva – 8.0
At the heart of everything. His passing, movement and skill was there for all to see.
Sergio Aguero – 6.5
His movement is excellent but he had enough chances to score two or three today and just didn’t deliver.
Nasri – 6.5
Didn’t have a big impact on the game.
Too Late To Mark.
Too Late To Mark.
Roberto Mancini – 7.
His team plays wonderful football and creates plenty of chances, but he must be worried about lack of goals.