x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Manchester City returns pleasing for Roberto Mancini

Back at the Premier League summit following 1-0 win over Aston Villa and with key players to return this week from international duty and suspension.

Joleon Lescott, centre, clears the ball against Aston Villa.
Joleon Lescott, centre, clears the ball against Aston Villa.

BIRMINGHAM // The spell of the season Roberto Mancini has long described as "a difficult moment" is over. Manchester City have returned to the Premier League summit and, from that lofty position, can welcome Yaya and Kolo Toure and Mario Balotelli back into the fold.

The Ivorians will return from the African Cup of Nations and the Italian from suspension to see their side with a two-point advantage, courtesy of victory at Villa Park.

"We know December and January were difficult months because we had players injured, players banned, players away," Mancini said.

"Now we are still on the top. Next week we will have all the players and that is very important for us."

So, too, was this result. A fifth win in six league games was earned by Joleon Lescott.

This has been a season of unrest for Aston Villa and, while a planned fans' protest had little effect, one of their own inflicted the latest damage to a struggling side. Birmingham born, Lescott grew up a Villa fan.

Indeed, it was an encounter of two teams with plenty of previous, with two players on either side facing their former club.

The winner came from a combination of a trio with an affection with Villa and was fashioned by two players who City signed, at considerable cost.

James Milner, a 2010 recruit from the Midlanders, took a corner. Gareth Barry, signed 12 months earlier, met it at the back post, heading the ball back into the six-yard box. Lescott, having escaped from James Collins all too easily, hooked in the half-volley from six yards.

It continued a damaging trend for Villa, who have been breached from set pieces far too often this season.

Despite Alex McLeish's reputation for defensive diligence, their marking has been shoddy all too often. Their home form, meanwhile, is suffering. Villa have not triumphed on their own turf since November and a seventh successive league game without victory rendered it their worst run at home for a quarter of a century.

And while away matches have presented problems for City of late, this was navigated professionally.

Not that they appeared the away side. Villa, who had omitted their two most creative players, Stephen Ireland and Charles N'Zogbia, were happy to cede territory and possession to City, putting the onus on the visitors to attack.

It was a challenge they accepted, even if it took an hour to bring a breakthrough.

Before Adam Johnson clipped the outside of the post, the former City goalkeeper Shay Given held shots from Barry and David Silva and Sergio Aguero led the Villa defence a merry dance, only to shoot over the bar.

It was an attack-versus-defence exercise.

"We were never going to go gung-ho against City," said McLeish. That was an understatement. A Villa side lacking ambition turned in a stultifying dull performance.

It was an unfitting farewell to Robbie Keane, who now returns to Los Angeles.

Until the final few minutes, their only noteworthy attacks concluded with Richard Dunne heading set pieces.

Then, at the last, an unmarked Carlos Cuellar headed over the bar and Joe Hart clawed away Darren Bent's overhead kick. "Joe is a good keeper," said Mancini. "He is young and he needs to improve but he can become one of the best goalkeepers in the world."

McLeish deemed his side unfortunate.

"They are the unluckiest team in the league this weekend," he said.

Yet the major entertainment offered by anyone with Villa allegiances was a streaker who skipped away from several stewards, each escape greeted by considerable cheers from the crowd.

For City, the sideshow came from Argentina with the suggestions Carlos Tevez is ready to return to England.

Mancini said he would welcome the rebellious striker back, but his view is unchanged: Tevez still needs to apologise.

"It's up to him," Mancini said. "Carlos knows everything." The door may remain open, but City have scarcely missed last season's top scorer. How others would love their difficulties.