#3 Minute 3:10: Villa’s first goal line stand
With respect to all other previous combatants, Manchester City provided the highest quality and best performance against Aston Villa thus far. The stats support that statement, whether it’s touches in the attacking penalty area, completed passes, duels won, and on down the list . . . City are formidable, and justifiably the top contender at this stage.
If Villa had designs on getting a result at the Etihad, then not allowing a goal was an obvious plan A, but especially not allowing an early goal was plan AA. When Bernardo Silva found himself alone after John Stones headed a Kevin De Bruyne corner back across the goal mouth, every Villa fan held their breath. But as he has done all season, Emi Martínez found a way to block the shot with his left leg, as Silva shied away from attacking the chance with his head. Maybe that moment’s hesitation was out of respect for Martínez’s stature. The desperate, “do- anything-to make-the-stop” save allowed Villa to catch their breath and stabilize the ship.
#2 Minute 75:30: John McGinn’s Miss
Villa’s best chance of the game came from an incredible sequence just after Rúben Dias nearly scored an own goal from a fizzed-in Ollie Watkins cross directed towards Jacob Ramsey. Watkins climbed above John Stones to rescue a hopeful cross, guiding the ball to Jack Grealish, who after freezing two opponents played a sublime ball to John McGinn, alone on the penalty spot. It couldn’t have been more perfect; 12 yards out, no one close, and the Scotsman on his preferred left foot. He even had to time to set himself. Unfortunately, McGinn stumbled at the crucial moment, and the chance was gone. Had he connected as Villa fans know he can (see that early chalked-off Arsenal goal), the game would have had an entirely different complexion do it . . . especially with less than 15 minutes to go.
#1: Minute 78:28. The most controversial goal of the season?
It wasn’t just Aston Villa fans who were screaming at their televisions; any supporter of any team with title ambitions would (and should) have had some serious questions over the manner in which City ultimately wrestled the game away. (In an ironic twist of fate, the assistant referee was Darren Cann, brought in at the last moment after the original line-o Dan Robathan couldn’t get to the stadium.)
Before we dissecting the incident, the law, and the interpretation of law, let’s be clear; Aston Villa did themselves no favours in the lead up. Emi Martínez’s usually reliable footwork slipped up, not hitting Douglas Luiz’s back pass very cleanly with a first-time right footer. An extra 10 yards or a slightly higher elevation might have sent Villa on their own attack. Then there was Mings. You could hear the “man-on” shout clear as day (along with the offside pleas) from the Villa touchline. The big man’s chest trap was OK, but once the ball fell to the floor and he attempted to get it out of his feet, Rodri (the player coming from the offside position) nicked the ball away, which began the spiral towards 1–0. There is a decent sized chunk of the Villa fan base that will point to moments throughout his claret and blue career where Mings has dwelt, dithered, or dropped at a crucial moment. (An early chance for Wilfred Zaha comes to mind as a recent example). Was he aware that Rodri was behind him when the ball came his way? Should he have just stepped aside and let the ball fly through, which would have rendered Rodri off-side? Or could he have just headed the ball away. No one will never know...but what happened after, will be debated for a long long time.
The law itself is pretty clear; “A player in an offside position receiving the ball from an opponent, who deliberately plays the ball, is not considered to have gained an advantage.” That’s the International Football Association Board language. The problem is, the game is not played on the pages of a FIFA Law book, it’s played on a pitch in real time. Rodri came from an off-side position, blind to Tyrone Mings, who as any player would do, played the ball because he had no way of knowing what was behind him. The City forward was set to easily kick the ball away. This is not a situation where the referee generally has a look at the replay. And Darren Cann didn’t raise his flag either, which would have then put the onus on VAR to identify a clear and obvious mistake by the crew. This is an extremely rare situation, which is both the beauty and the frustration of football; that circumstances can conspire against your side in such an unprecedented way.
Televised coverage included analysis from pundits Michael Owen and Owen Hargreaves, both of whom were adamant that from a pure footballing perspective, the goal should have been disallowed, but instead was quantified around an IFAB boardroom table amongst many people have never kicked a ball in anger.
Honourable mention #1: Bertrand Traoré’s take turn and try (51:22)
Martínez’s sidewinder clearance led to a feather soft first touch and turn, and then met the acceleration by Bertrand Traoré. It would have been a goal for the ages, but unlike the slow motion goalkeeper freezing moment at West Bromwich, he couldn’t guide it home this time.
Honourable mention #2: Ross Barkley’s blocked ball for Jack Grealish on the break (9:30)
Another fantastic delivery from Martínez, with a Traoré-like touch from Matt Targett to send Villa on the break. Ross Barkley’s lack of action may have affected his timing as he tried to punch a square ball to Jack Grealish on the right flank, only for it to be cut out. The better option might have been to push the ball ahead for Watkins (who loves that angled forward run), as the Villa number 9 could have then picked out either Barkley or Grealish from a better position along the bye line.