1-0 Elano (22), 2-0 Wright-Phillips (88)
- Match reports
- 04 March 2009 22:10
- Posted by Peter Ferguson
Mark Hughes was without injured duo Robinho and Craig Bellamy, calling up Felipe Caicedo to lead the line against the Champions League chasers with Elano replacing his fellow Brazilian.
CITY defied the formbook to pull off one of their most satisfying wins of the campaign against away-day specialists Villa, who were second best to Mark Hughes' injury-hit team.
Shaun Wright-Phillips immediately looked in the mood to give Villa's defence a hard night, and he wriggled through a couple of tackles after five minutes only to send his shot wide of Brad Friedel's right-hand post.
Emile Heskey is always a threat, even if the big England striker does not always get his fair share of goals, and the former Wigan centre-forward was working hard to try and give Villa an early advantage.
But it was Friedel who had to be on his toes with ten minutes gone when Elano, keen to show his worth, played in Stephen Ireland with a delightful ball just outside the box. But Ireland failed to catch his shot cleanly and his mis-hit was belted clear by defender Zat Knight.
Heskey was on hand to help out his defence and climb highest to deal with an Elano corner before Vincent Kompany surged forward with more passion than accuracy to leather a drive well wide of Friedel's post.
City fans had been fearful that their understrength team might be caught out by counter-attack experts Villa, but the Blues defence was alert enough - and quick enough - to command the first half and, as it transpired, the second as well.
Zabaleta delivered a delightful and difficult cross deep into the Villa box, forcing Cuellar to hack clear from Caicedo, before City created and spurned the best chance of the game so far.
Nigel de Jong started the 21st-minute move and SWP should have finished it but with the hapless Luke Young unable to tackle for fear of conceding the penalty, the Blues favourite steered his shot inches wide.
Not that it mattered too much, because a minute later City took the lead from the penalty spot after James Milner brought down SWP from behind and Elano stepped up to fire a perfect spot kick beyong Friedel.
That goal, Elano's first since October, was greeted with predictable glee by fans suddenly glowing on a cold Eastlands night, and even Caicedo's booking for handball on the half hour hardly mattered.
Milner, who had been shown the yellow card by referee Foy for the challenge that conceded City's penalty, was urging his team-mates to step up their efforts but it was the Blues who really looked the part.
Wright-Phillips gave Caicedo half a chance that he couldn't take before Cuellar's meaty tackle left the Ecuador striker squirming on the turf and hearts in mouths until he finally climbed to his feet.
City were giving a good impersonation of the side that was angling for a top four place while Villa struggled to keep up, reinforcing the view that Mark Hughes' men are close to turning the corner.
Villa skipper Barry was having to track back to help out as the game headed for its unlikely half-time score, and a crunching Richard Dunne tackle that left Ashley Young limping did not make the visitors' prospects seem any brighter.
Young eventually sank to the turf a few minutes later with Martin O'Neill gesturing on the touchline, but the winger was able to carry on after treatment.
SWP still had time to whip across a marvellous centre that Ireland nearly converted at full stretch before the half-time whistle brought some relief for the whole Villa team.
Villa, who had won seven successive away games in the Premier League, came out fighting and replaced defender Curtis Davies with big Norway striker John Carew in a clear signal of intent.
The second half was not even a minute old when Blues midfielder De Jong ran off to be replaced by Gelsen Fernandes and ran straight down the tunnel with Hughes' obvious approval.
There was more bite to Villa's play, presumably after a few words of wisdom from manager O'Neill, but City were ready to dig in and defend - not the game that Villa like to have to play away from home.
Villa's reshuffle meant Milner had to fill in at right-back, not the best use of his considerable talents, and the visitors struggled to stamp any authority on a match they started clear favourites to win.
SWP conjured one of his trademark incisive passes to send Fernandes to the byeline, and though he was unable to find a light-blue shirt with his cutback, Villa were reminded of their vulnerability.
Ched Evans replaced Caicedo after 73 minutes and the young Welshman almost created a second goal for Elano with his first touch, chesting down Bridge's fine centre for the Brazilian to force a brilliant save from Friedel.
That would have been the final blow for Villa with time running out and Arsene Wenger no doubt allowing himself a smile, and City hurled themselves in front of everything the visitors tried to equalise.
Their heroics took the game into the last ten minutes with City still in front and heading for one of their best victories of a rollercoaster campaign, and the 40,137 crowd turned up the volume.
When Valeri Bojinov came on for Elano after 82 minutes, both the Brazilian and the Bulgarian received standing ovations, Bojinov having been out since damaging an achilles at Villa back in August.
Richard Dunne, who gave a captain's performance at the back, found a great, late clearing header to defuse one of the few decent crosses, by Gabby Agbonlahor, that Villa were able to deliver.
But there was still time, with two minutes left, for SWP to round off a marvellous night for injury-hit City by exchanging passes with Ireland before slotting the Blues' clincher beyond Friedel.
And Ireland almost added further insult to injury by nearly nicking a third, the keeper scrambling his shot away at the near post as the game went into time added on.