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Talking Points: Steven Gerrard’s side show they can compete against the league’s big boys

The Villans fell victim to an impressive Manchester City side, but showed plenty of grit and fight. Here are the main talking points from a night under the lights at Villa Park.

Aston Villa v Manchester City - Premier League
Pictured: Goalscorer Ollie Watkins wheels away in celebration after getting a goal back for his side.
Photo by Neville Williams/Aston Villa FC via Getty Images

A slick first-half from City

Round fourteen of the Premier League campaign meant Aston Villa would face an in-form Manchester City side orchestrated by the reputable Pep Guardiola. City, who sit in second position, a point behind league leaders Chelsea, are looking at defending their champions status and winning their sixth Premier League title.

The Manchester City squad is full of world-class players everywhere you look, and even with some key players unavailable for selection, namely Kevin De Bruyne and Phil Foden, the line-up would still pose plenty of problems for Steven Gerrard and his team.

As the game kicked off, City asserted their dominance on the game and positioned themselves in their dictating and imposing manner, with the aim of boxing their opponents in and fashioning chances. This led to an early opportunity for the away side, with Joao Cancelo, who has had quite the season so far, finding himself in-front of goal, only to be denied excellently by the ever impressive Emiliano Martinez.

The deployment of Rodri and Fernandinho, who are both naturally defensive-minded midfielders, proved to be beneficial for Pep Guardiola as it gave City’s attacking players the freedom to roam the field without the defensive over-reliance on the likes of Bernardo Silva and Riyad Mahrez. The two in the heart of the pitch ultimately set a platform for the Citizens to play from — a smart decision by the Catalonian Head Coach.

The visitors would continue their offensive surges, with Raheem Sterling and Bernardo Silva looking particularly threatening and most capable of fabricating a chance for their side. This dominance would eventually pay off, and in the twenty seventh minute centre-back Ruben Dias would be the one to find the opener, sending an unstoppable left-footed effort into the lower corner of the goal, beyond Martinez’s reach.

Aston Villa v Manchester City - Premier League
Pictured: Ruben Dias celebrates opening the scoring at Villa Park.
Photo by Chris Brunskill/Fantasista/Getty Images

The lead was deserved, and whilst Aston Villa did not necessarily look disappointing or there for the taking, they were definitely second best. The home side were able to break the intense City press and pass the midfield lines on a few occasions, but ultimately lacked quality in the final third.

The game’s tempo would fluctuate, with Villa seeing more of the ball, but only in stages. Man City’s defence remained watertight and would keep the Villans out on every occasion — typical of the reigning champion’s backline who have only conceded eight goals in the thirteen games played.

Nearing the end of the opening forty-five, the home side found themselves deep in their opponent’s half looking for a leveller that would switch the game’s momentum heading into the break. This left them incredibly vulnerable however, and when Fernandinho sent a ball up the field, it appeared as if the away fans would be the happiest at half-time.

The ball found itself at Gabriel Jesus’ feet on the right hand side, and a two versus one scenario emerged, with Ezri Konsa the only Villa man back. Bearing down on goal, Jesus whipped an fine cross into Bernardo Silva who sent a breath-taking first-time volley past a helpless Emi Martinez.

Aston Villa v Manchester City - Premier League
Pictured: Bernardo Silva shows excellent technique to put his Manchester City side two goals to the good.
Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Everything about the goal was flawless and illustrates just how effective and ruthless Man City can be on the break. From Cancelo and Mahrez’s one touch interplay in the box to Silva’s devastating strike, it is hard to see where Villa could have prevented such a goal. Sometimes you simply have to stand back and appreciate such a seamless chain of events.

Guardiola’s side were not as dominant or superior as they have been in games this season, much to the credit of their hosts, but showed that they do not need to be totally in control to score goals and win games.

City’s second would be the last real opportunity for either time in the half, and Steven Gerrard would have a great deal to say to his group at half-time if he was to inspire and stage what would be a remarkable comeback.

A valiant second showing

Aston Villa needed to put in an improved performance and start on the front-foot for the second-half after what had been a relatively passive opening forty-five minutes. If they were to stop their opponents from running away with the game and rescue a point from Villa Park, the home side needed to make the most of their possession and flood bodies forward — ultimately bring the game to City.

The half started just as Gerrard would have wanted, with a goal. After an intense beginning, Villa won themselves a corner, and Austin McPhee’s set-piece work in training prevailed, with Ollie Watkins capitalising on a front-post ball in from Douglas Luiz. The English forward executed a tidy finish that beat and deceived City ‘keeper Ederson after brushing the inside of the post.

This naturally brought about plenty of cheers from the stands of Villa Park, and the level of optimism in the atmosphere sky-rocketed at the prospect of a comeback. Ezri Konsa grabbed the ball, and the team instantly retreated behind the half-way line, demonstrating their desire to restart play and look for a leveller.

Aston Villa v Manchester City - Premier League
Pictured: Ollie Watkins squeezing the ball past ‘keeper Ederson as his side looks to mount a comeback.
Photo by Neville Williams/Aston Villa FC via Getty Images

The next exchanges did not go the way that the home crowd would have liked though, with the away side seeing the majority of the ball and mounting the pressure. Manchester City are a side that can dictate the tempo of the match very well, and the Citizens certainly slowed the proceedings down, which in turn, quietened the post-goal buzz around Villa Park.

Play started to pick up again however, with Aston Villa seeing more of the ball and surging forward more frequently. Openings down either side started to emerge with Luiz and McGinn, playing as wide midfielders, seeing plenty of action and looking the most likely to instigate a chance.

A series of substitutions were to follow, with Steven Gerrard choosing to introduce Carney Chukwuemeka and Morgan Sanson in place of an injured Matt Targett and Marvelous Nakamba. At this stage, with the Midlands side still in the game, the atmosphere gradually started to pick up, which was subsequently met by a change in intensity by the boys in claret and blue.

The opportunity of the half fell to youngster Chukwuemeka, who found himself one-on-one with the City shot stopper, but the Brazilian proved his worth by denying the 18-year-old from close range. The move was well constructed, with Emi Buendia demonstrating his excellent creative abilities after some neat exchanges down the left with Douglas Luiz.

With ten minutes to go, the Villans continued to push and throw everything they could at the Champions, but could not carve out a final clear-cut chance that would have surely won them a point. Man City were able to draw the clock down by keeping the ball high in the Villa half when additional time struck, and after four minutes, referee Mike Dean brought the game to an end.

It was a telling scene at the final whistle with a number of the Aston Villa players falling to the floor with fatigue — an indicator of the hard work they had shown throughout the ninety minutes.

Aston Villa v Manchester City - Premier League
Pictured: Aston Villa’s Tyrone Mings (foreground) and John McGinn (background) showing signs of tiredness at full-time.
Photo by Naomi Baker/Getty Images

Steven Gerrard was quick to praise his team for the way they played in the second showing, particularly the way they listened to the feedback at half-time and acted upon it. The new boss said:

“...we said to the players let’s make it as difficult as we can, let’s take the game to the wire, let’s believe in ourselves ... I thought it took us ten or 15 minutes to have that belief and that courage. Once we did, I thought we were terrific at times”

The new boss wanted his team to show Pep Guardiola and his side that they could compete and go toe to toe against them. The message “let’s believe in ourselves” signifies the trust and belief that Gerrard has in his players, with the urge given at half-time to express themselves and play the football he knows they are capable of.

Gerrard will be hopeful of a strong performance like the ones against Brighton & Hove Albion and Crystal Palace last week and will want to see a similar display from the second-half of this Manchester City fixture, when his side meet Brendan Rodgers and his Leicester City team at Villa Park on Sunday.

Jack Grealish’s return to Villa Park

It would be difficult not to discuss Jack Grealish and his first return to Aston Villa after signing from the Midlands club to Manchester City for a record-breaking £100 million in the summer.

Grealish who shares fond memories with the club that he represented over 180 times, would revisit the ground that he once called home in the sky blue colours of Man City, and the reception he would receive from the Villa faithful was heavily talked about in the lead up to this fixture.

There seemed to be a divide in opinions, with some opting to boo and jeer the former captain, feeling he left in an unfair fashion. Others appeared to opt for the opposite reaction, and would applaud and cheer the 26-year-old, appreciating what the talisman has done for the club in the past.

On the day of the game Aston Villa released a statement on the club website and a post across their various social media sites that read:

This caused quite an outrage online, with a large part of the claret and blue social media users feeling as if the statement somewhat ordered them to give him a warm welcome back to the stadium — ultimately telling them how they should react or feel about the situation.

If fans were not already heated and fired up for the game and the circumstance that would see Grealish step onto the Villa Park pitch once again, they certainly would be now.

His first re-appearance in B6 would be when heading out of the tunnel to begin warming up for the tie and, whilst there were only a small percentage of home fans in attendance around forty-five minutes prior to kick-off, the number ten was met with the expected mixture of both boos and cheers.

The lineups were echoed out around the ground, and when Grealish’s name was called by the stadium announcer, once again the various reactions were expressed without an outstanding feeling being portrayed around the ground.

Grealish was expectedly benched for the game after only soon coming back from an injury sustained whilst on international duty early last month. The England star was often instructed to warm-up by boss Pep Guardiola, and was met by an overwhelming amount of applause from the lower sections of both the Trinity Road and the North Stand.

Other areas of the ground conveyed their opposing feelings however, and the Villa Park atmosphere was certainly a hostile one at times.

Jack Grealish would eventually enter the field of play in the 87th minute, replacing Gabriel Jesus in the City forward line. To follow would be the loudest rendition of the notorious ‘Villa ‘til I die’ chant, which was bellowed out by the majority of the 40,000 Aston Villa fans in attendance on Wednesday night.

The chant would remain in the air for the remainder of the game along with a series of other varying chants for and against against the City record signing.

At the final whistle, many Villa fans awaited Grealish’s lap of the pitch and the Solihull-born lad did so applauding those who used to sing his name week in, week out. The prestigious ‘Villa ‘til I die’ was repeated, which is bound to be talked about for years to come.

It certainly wasn’t the rosy return Jack Grealish would have hoped for, but he would have relished playing back at the ground he spent nine years at and enjoyed seeing some of his old teammates.

Welcome back, Jack.

Aston Villa v Manchester City - Premier League
Pictured: Jack Grealish applauds the Villa faithful after the final whistle.
Photo by Chris Brunskill/Fantasista/Getty Images