After more than an hour of frustration and increasing tension, Edin Dzeko brought an explosion of relief to Etihad Stadium with the first of two potentially priceless goals to send Manchester City on the road to a 4-0 victory over Aston Villa and put them within touching distance of claiming the Premier League title.
Realistically needing four points from their final two games, City encountered a Villa team with little to play for but who defended stubbornly in their role of spoilers. City, famed for their habit of doing things the hard way down the years, looked like they may do so again and leave themselves needing a win on the final day to be sure of holding off the challenge of Liverpool for their second championship in three seasons. Perhaps sensing that history, the City fans cut a nervous atmosphere for much of the encounter as the fear of blowing a golden opportunity given to them by Liverpool’s slip-ups began to loom increasingly large.
But from two crosses by the superb and tireless Pablo Zabaleta in the 64th and 72nd minutes, Dzeko made it five goals in three games to secure a massive three points. Missing the injured Sergio Aguero, the oft-criticized Bosnian came up big for Manuel Pellegrini. Andreas Weimann headed against the underside of the bar in the final 10 minutes, but a Villa side missing Christian Benteke and Gabriel Agbonlahor and set up to play on counter attack lacked the forward threat to bring the tension back to the hosts before substitute Stevan Jovetic and then in sensational fashion Yaya Toure added sheen to the scoreline and brought up City’s 100th league goal of the season.
City can now go into their final match of the season at home to West Ham with the relative comfort of knowing that a draw will be enough, barring a preposterous 13 goal margin of victory for Liverpool against Newcastle United. The title race is now officially down to just two teams, with City’s victory taking Chelsea mathematically out of the equation.
Villa set their stall out from the off on Wednesday, with five men strung across the backline. Unsurprisingly, the first 25 minutes were dominated from the home side as they strived to find a way through their disciplined opponents. City had the right approach to try and negate Villa’s system, though, by utilizing their forward-surging full-backs.
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Aleksandar Kolarov was heavily involved early, striking a fierce shot at the near post that Brad Guzan blocked before his fierce cross was just missed by David Silva’s attempted flick. On the other flank, Zabaleta’s pull-back was behind Toure, whose shot on the turn was excellently denied by the left leg of Brad Guzan.
But having barely strung two passes together, never mind constructed attack in the early going, Villa began to grow into the game midway through the opening period. Jordan Bowery, making his first Premier League start of the season, had a chance, too, but he couldn’t wrap his foot around Weimann’s deep cross. There was even evidence of premature desperation from City when they were left woefully exposed from their own corner and were fortunate that Weimann failed to take on last defender Zabaleta and instead shot tamely wide.
City regained their momentum by the end of the half, but continued to fail to make the breakthrough. With Weimann moving across to negate the threat of Kolarov, much was now going through Zabaleta. After his cut-back couldn’t be seized upon by Silva, the half came to and with Samir Nasri missing the best chance of the period when he volleyed the Argentinean’s cross wide at the near post with the goal gaping.
The pattern continued into the second half. With the anxiety increasing, Pellegrini went to the bench for the first time on the hour mark and brought on Stevan Jovetic for James Milner. And four minutes later the breakthrough finally arrived. There was no surprise in the source. Zabaleta, found superbly by Silva, put a low pass across the box for the umpteenth time in the match and this time Dzeko was alert to get to the near post first and shoot low into the net. The rapturous celebrations from the City players and the cries of relief from around the stadium spoke volumes for the goal’s significance.
Less than 10 minutes later, City got the cushion of a second. Zabaleta, not just one of the Premier League’s best right-backs over recent seasons, but one of City’s most influential characters, was again at the heart of it. This time his pull-back was seized upon by Nasri, whose initial shot was well saved by Guzan but Dzeko was on the spot to turn the ball over the line from close range.
There may have been some late nerves had Weimann’s header gone a yard the other side of the line when coming down off the crossbar, but instead it was to become an emphatic City win. Jovetic, after a season beset by injuries, showed his quality with a clinical finish from the edge of the box after Toure held up the ball and occupied three defenders.
In the third minute of injury time, Toure needed no help at all to score his 20th Premier League goal of the campaign in typical marauding fashion. Showing incredible energy so late in the game, after picking the ball up inside his own half, the Ivorian surged past one Villa defender before leaving the rest trailing in his wake and still having the composure on the run to produce a fine finish. It was the perfect way to end a night to remember that surely means City will be champions.