For a while now Aston Villa have openly and confidently declared qualifying for the Champions League is their primary objective this season and, on this evidence, after defeating and disposing of Manchester City, they will be in the conversation for the long haul. Leon Bailey blasted Villa in front on 74 minutes and City could not argue it had not been coming on a chastening evening to forget for Pep Guardiola, whose side are now an unprecedented four Premier League matches without victory.
Villa were fortuitous Bailey’s strike looped in via Rúben Dias but by that point they had more than created their own luck with a rip-roaring performance. By the end, City were on the ropes, Ederson reeling as his defence crumbled in front of him. Douglas Luiz, the former City midfielder, cracked a shot against a post late on as Villa hunted for a second.
At full time, it was to wonder whether the thumping chorus of Villa’s adaptation of Jeff Beck’s Hi Ho Silver Lining has ever sounded this sweet. The deafening atmosphere was just one aspect of a memorable evening when the numbers told a revealing story. Villa had 22 shots to City’s two, seven of which were on target. Villa won the ball back 13 times in the opposition half, the most any team has done so in a league game against Guardiola’s City. At times it felt Villa were toying with the champions. At the final whistle John McGinn, the again magnificent Villa captain who conducted things from the heart of midfield, lay on his back after exhausting every sinew. Emilio Martínez beat his chest in front of the Holte End.
Often the pre-match pyrotechnics feel somewhat overkill – sometimes it can be hard to escape the notion that the occasion about to unravel before our eyes has been frankly overhyped – but this clash between sides third and fourth in the table, places they traded at full time, lived up to its billing as an absorbing contest. These days Villa represent formidable opposition full stop, but they are a particular force here; they have now won their past 14 home league matches. The place was rocking from the moment the players emerged from the tunnel.
Put simply, City could not live with Villa’s intensity, insatiable press or downright gumption. If anything captured quite how uncomfortable a ride this was for the champions, it was the sight of Erling Haaland hurtling into Ederson’s 18-yard box to clear the ball to safety and avert another wave of Villa pressure. It was almost a case of anywhere will do, Haaland hooking the ball to halfway and straight back into Villa’s laps. The shot count at half-time was 13-2 in Villa’s favour, though the teams went in level despite the hosts’ dominance. Unai Emery marched down the tunnel, a few yards in front of Guardiola, who was embroiled in conversation with his assistant, Juanma Lillo. For Ederson, a chance for a breather.
The omnipresent McGinn was the architect behind almost all of Villa’s good work and his audacious pass, sprayed from left to right amid seemingly little danger, was the catalyst for their first real chance. McGinn located Bailey and the Villa forward tested Ederson, leathering a bouncing ball goalwards. Ederson had to keep out a swerving Bailey strike and then he volleyed over from a sumptuous Lucas Digne cross. Ederson also saved smartly from Pau Torres. On the stroke of the interval, Douglas Luiz headed in from another fine Digne cross but the Villa left-back – just about – ran the ball out of play in the buildup.
It was, of course, Haaland who went closest to scoring for City in a first half which they spent much of on the back foot. Martínez, who 12 months ago was en route to clinching the Golden Glove award in Qatar, repelled Haaland’s initial shot after the City striker latched on to a Phil Foden pass but when Bernardo Silva recycled the ball, the Argentina goalkeeper was again called into action. Silva stood up a cross to the back post and Haaland directed it goalwards, but Martínez pushed the ball clear with an incredible, instinctive two-handed save.
Perhaps it was inevitable that the tempo would drop a little in the second half but there was always a sense that things were simmering beneath the surface.
Haaland zig-zagged clear of three Villa shirts on halfway but delayed his pass for Foden and when he did release the ball it was too late and Foden was offside. John Stones’s failed Cruyff turn culminated in a Villa goal-kick. Rico Lewis was booked for tugging Douglas Luiz’s shirt. It was that kind of evening.
City seemed to take the sting out of Villa until McGinn sent a cool right-foot effort dribbling inches wide of a post a few minutes after the hour. Silva cheaply surrendered possession and Bailey fed McGinn, who chopped inside Dias before sending a shot just off target. With 66 minutes on the clock, every City player was camped behind the ball, waiting for Pau Torres to pick his pass. Guardiola stood, hands clasped behind his back but the real pain was yet to come. Bailey eluded Josko Gvardiol and sent this stadium barmy.