After a tumultuous few days in which their dreams of a quadruple evaporated and their reputation acquired a fouler odour, Manchester City got the result they needed, albeit after an imperfect performance. Pep Guardiola’s team conceded a goal to John McGinn after just 20 seconds and, despite striking back through the wonderful Phil Foden and Rodri, they lost John Stones to a red card before half-time. City dominated for long spells between those incidents but only began to look really at ease when Villa were also reduced to 10 men, Matty Cash dismissed just before the hour for two fouls on Foden.
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”.
Once that public relations chore was done, City could turn their attention to a more pleasant matter, namely the privilege of consorting with a club that has a European champions crown in its cabinet. What a thrill that must have been for the visiting players, especially as they knew that victory would edge City closer to a seventh English title, which would at least pull them level with Villa on the national roll of honour.
Guardiola fielded a very strong lineup despite the proximity to Sunday’s Carabao Cup final. The hosts deployed 19-year-old Jacob Ramsey in place of the injured Jack Grealish, without whom Villa had won just two of their previous eight matches.
But City started like a team who had lost their bearings. They fell behind after just 20 seconds because of, fittingly enough, shambolic defending.
Tyrone Mings surprised them with a quick free-kick down the left that Stones failed to cut out. Ollie 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.
Then Kyle Walker had to block a shot by Douglas Luiz after more flimsy defending. Soon City started to dominate possession and pushed their hosts backwards. 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.
John Stones receives a yellow card before it was changed to a red.
Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian
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 attacker 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. Ederson slipped while taking a goal kick moments later, and was grateful to see Ramsey blast the ball into the sidenetting.
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 wild tackle on Ramsey near the half-way line.
The England international kicked the teenager on the knee after being beaten by him to a bouncing ball.
Ramsey was withdrawn at half-time as Dean Smith sent on a second striker, Keinan Davis. Guardiola took off City’s only striker, Gabriel Jesus, and introduced Ayermic Laporte to repair their defence.
Not that City sought merely to protect their lead. They would have increased it in the 50th minute if İlkay 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, both for fouls on Foden.
That rashness helped to settle City, who navigated their way quite serenely through the remaining half hour of the match.