Aston Villa 1 Manchester City 3
Deja vu is always unsettling but rarely as painful as this. As if Aston Villa had not suffered enough at the hands of Darius Vassell last season, they found that the Manchester City striker is still keen to prove to his former club that they were wrong to sell him.
Vassell, who made his Villa debut in 1998 and spent seven years with the club before joining City in July 2005, scored once and was a significant figure in City's surprisingly straightfoward victory here last night.
Vassell scored four goals in four matches against Villa last season and, in truth, was rarely this good here when this was his home stadium.
He scored after 18 minutes, Joey Barton increased City's lead soon after and, while Gavin McCann pulled a goal back for Villa early in the second half with a fine goal, Sylvain Distin emphasised the difference between the teams by scoring late on.
The January transfer window cannot come soon enough for Martin O'Neill, the Villa manager, who cut an isolated figure on the touchline as he watched his team crumble in the first half and fail to inspire in the second. Randy Lerner, the Villa chairman, had flown in especially for the match but his enthusiasm was not matched by that of his team.
And yet, with optimism high and the attendance low, Lerner took his place in the directors box wearing a Villa scarf and a huge smile. If one was a token of allegiance, the other was a reflection of his pride at how quickly the negativity here has evaporated. Not all supporters are convinced — Villa Park was only three-quarters full last night — but there is now an expection here that has not been experienced since the Brian Little era, nearly a decade ago.
And, initially, against a talented City team, that expection was part of the problem. City were so dominant, so compact, that Villa seemed diminished by the weight of their own frustration. Worse still, it was Vassell who emerged as City's most influential figure.
Jeered at his every touch by the Villa fans, Vassell produced the kind of football that took him to the World Cup as part of the England squad in 2002. Three times in the opening 20 minutes, Vassell caused problems inside the Villa penalty area, and it was on the third occasion that he scored with a superlative shot from 12 yards after a cross by Hatem Trabelsi was flicked on by Bernardo Corradi.
This was Vassell's fifth goal against Villa since he left Villa Park; a clear case of one man with something to prove; a clear case of man finally, if briefly, living up to his reputation.
He did so much to warrant special attention that Villa allowed other City players, particularly Trabelsi and Georgios Samaras, more space than might have been deemed appropriate. Indeed, it was from a cross by Samaras, who was inexplicably allowed too much time inside the penalty area, that Barton was able to increase City's lead in the 32nd minute with a low shot from ten yards.
Villa at least ended the half well and probably scored in stoppage time when a direct free kick by Stiliyan Petrov, from 23 yards, struck the underside of the crossbar and appeared to cross the goal-line on its way down. Appeals for a goal were waved aside.
If Lerner still wore his Villa scarf, the smile had long since turned to a grimace. As the chairman, his facial expression has to reflect the mood inside the stadium. It is part of his job specification. Part of O'Neill's job specification is give a half-time team talk that could give hope where none appeared to exist. After a wretched opening 45 minutes, the
Villa players needed their manager like never before.
The response was instant, if a touch half-hearted. Petrov was denied again, this time by Nicky Weaver in the City goal, and Milan Baros was at least looking to cause havoc in the channels rather than disappear down blind alleys, as he did in the first half. But Baros is as Baros does, and few players frustrate as he does.
The same could be said for City, who had not won away from home since their victory against Villa last season. They performed with style and panache last night, nearly increasing their lead in the 59th minute when, first, a shot by Samaras was saved by Stuart Taylor before Vassell 's shot on the rebound was also saved.
Villa were desperate for inspiration and some came, in the 65th, from an unlikely source. McCann seemed to have few options when he gained possion inside the City half, which gave him the confidence to shoot from 26 yards out. The shot was hard and low and close to perfection, reducing City's lead and giving Villa a lifeline.
But the optimism was short-lived. Distin gained possession on the halfway line, evaded the challenge of Liam Ridgewell, and slid the ball beyond the flailing right leg of Taylor to restore City's two-goal advantage in the 75th minute.
It was then that Villa Park began to empty. Those who stayed until the end will wonder how much this Villa team will change when O'Neill brings new players to the club in January.
ASTON VILLA (4-4-2): Taylor; Mellberg, Cahill, Ridgewell, Bouma (Davis, 64); Agbonlahor, Petrov, McCann, Barry; Angel, Baros. Substitutes: Olejnik, Whittingham, Hughes, Gardner.
MANCHESTER CITY (4-4-2): Weaver; Richards (Onuohu, 90), Dunne, Distin, Thatcher; Trabelsi (Dickov, 85), Barton, Reyna, Vassell; Samaras (Hamman, 76), Corradi. Substitutes: Hart, Miller.
Referee: Mike Dean (Wirral).
Booking: Villa — Barry (foul).