Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Manchester City 2 - 0 Aston Villa

Aston Villa's charge to the Champions League was starting to grind to a halt after Elano and Shaun Wright-Phillips combined to give inconsistent Manchester City a 2-0 victory at Eastlands.

The Brazilian's first-half penalty - the first time he has scored in the Premier League since August - would probably have been enough anyway but man-of-the-match Wright-Phillips made certain of the points two minutes from time.

It means Villa have now gone six games without a win. And while three of those were cup ties, with Arsenal breathing down their necks just three points adrift, fourth place is looking anything but certain.

Ever since his ill-advised TV interview earlier in the season in which he questioned why Mark Hughes kept leaving him out, Elano has maintained an uneasy public truce with his manager.

There are plenty who suggest the Brazilian remains a disruptive influence behind the scenes and there have certainly been times when he has appeared something short of a consummate team man.

Yet, should Hughes somehow find the formula for getting consistent performances from the former Shakhtar Donetsk man, City could really start a surge up the table.

After all, Elano was one of the main reasons why the Blues found themselves in the Champions League slots last December, an honour that now belongs to their latest opponents.

With Robinho and Craig Bellamy both missing through injury, Hughes was able to offer Elano the kind of free role behind a lone frontman - in this case Felipe Caicedo - that he craves.

The response, if not exactly energetic, was certainly enthusiastic and it was his pass to Shaun Wright-Phillips that brought the hosts their penalty in the first place.

Wright-Phillips had found himself in a similar position moments earlier, when Stephen Ireland was the provider.

Amazingly, with just Brad Friedel to beat, the England international slipped his shot wide.

Wright-Phillips did not get that far on the second occasion. Having been caught the wrong side of his man, James Milner attempted the tackle and succeeded only in tripping his opponent.

Brad Friedel almost made amends with a flying dive to his right. Unfortunately for Villa, Elano's spot-kick was just too good.

Hughes was convinced City should have had a second spot-kick when Caicedo went down under Carlos Cuellar's challenge but referee Chris Foy did not quite see it the same way.

Unlike Elano, Wright-Phillips' commitment has never been questioned and the England international was City's star performer, keeping the Villa defence on their toes with a succession of mazy runs on his return from a three-match ban.

Yet it also had to be said it was a pale imitation of the Villa side who have impressed so many this season.

Their poor run of form seemed to have drained Martin O'Neill's men of confidence.

The response to a tepid first-half performance was for O'Neill to introduce John Carew for Curtis Davies, a substitution that triggered a number of positional changes, including Gabriel Agbonlahor taking up a wider position.

It suggested an aerial bombardment, but instead it brought more width, which Ashley Young relished.

After seizing the initiative without managing to put Shay Given under any pressure, Agbonlahor finally created a chance for Villa with a superb pass to Gareth Barry, whose first-time volley would have crept in if Given had not got down by his post to bundle it away.

The visitors' offensive forced City to play on the counter-attack. Crucially though, it gave them space to exploit.

Ched Evans' magnificent first touch was a chested lay-off to Wayne Bridge's shot which Elano struck sweetly, only for Brad Friedel to make a superb save.

On this evidence, it was perfectly simple to work out why Sven-Goran Eriksson paid £8million for Elano - and why Hughes felt he needed to splash out slightly less to get Given from Newcastle.

The Republic of Ireland international produced another blinding stop to deny Young.

It was the last chance Villa created. And to rub salt into their wounds, Wright-Phillips capitalised on Ireland's pass at the end to seal the win for City.

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