Even as Aston Villa turned back time to the Great Depression, they have rarely been happier. Unai Emery made club history as he established a belated first in his career. As Villa equalled a club record of 14 straight home league wins, last set in 1930-31, Emery finally beat Pep Guardiola, at the 14th time of asking. In the process, they sent the treble winners down to fourth, Villa leapfrogging them. Emery may try to ignore talk of the Champions League, but no Villa side of the 21st century has looked as capable of securing a top-four finish. Carry on like this and this one could yet challenge for the title.
But for Guardiola and City, these are strange, disconcerting times. The Catalan said he had the feeling they will retain the title, but it is feeling harder for a side on their longest winless run in six-and-a-half years or for one who were outplayed by the upstart challengers from the Midlands. Villa had 22 shots to City’s two, a sign of a startling level of dominance against the champions. A fourth match without victory ended a run of three draws and came with the rare sight of City reeling: they had survived wave after wave of Villa attack but just when it seemed Emery’s statement of intent may still result in a stalemate, the electric Leon Bailey delivered the goal his excellence and ebullience deserved.
It was deflected, but this was no hard-luck story for City. Even though Emi Martinez made a wonderful double save from Erling Haaland, City were otherwise muted in attack, in part because they were unusually wretched in midfield. They needed Ederson to excel to preserve parity for as long: the Brazilian rarely has to embark on a damage-limitation exercise, but he did here.
It took Bailey to beat him, justifying Emery’s decision to prefer the Jamaican to the summer signing Moussa Diaby. A mercurial figure had spent his evening slaloming his way through challenges, confronting City players with impudent trickery. His enthusiasm was infectious, his energy shared by his teammates.
City had been warned. They had felt they had the better of each of their three draws. But even while it was 0-0, they were hanging on here. Villa with pace and ambition. They swept forward – or scurried, in John McGinn’s case – at every opportunity. They mustered 12 shots within the first half, five of them on target. When they first had the ball in the net, Douglas Luiz’s header was disallowed because the ball was out before Lucas Digne crossed. Douglas Luiz, who was owned by City but never played for them, again came agonisingly close to scoring against them, curling a shot against the post after Bailey had struck.
There were points before then when it was Ederson against Villa. He had begun with two saves in as many minutes, blocking Bailey’s shot, clawing away Pau Torres’ effort. He later tipped Bailey’s long-range effort over and did well to thwart Ollie Watkins on the stroke of half-time. John McGinn shot just wide after Bailey’s inventive cross-field pass.
But Villa were unrelenting and City were unimpressive. There was a familiar theme for them. It was the fourth game for which Rodri has been banned this season and City have lost all four. They scarcely required a reminder of the suspended Spaniard’s importance but got one anyway. They had no midfield shield. They were overrun in the centre of the pitch, lacking the stability and solidity he can offer, overdosing on centre-backs instead.
Guardiola began with John Stones, making his first start in a month, and Manuel Akanji in hybrid roles, but without much of an actual midfield. In the second half, he shifted Bernardo Silva, who had started on the right wing, to the base of the midfield to try and add control. Yet there was the sense of a patched-up team with players out of position, lacking chemistry. They were without the injured Jeremy Doku and Jack Grealish’s ban – for foolishly kicking the ball away on Sunday – compounded their difficulties.
Their only efforts came in swift succession and left Villa grateful for spectacular goalkeeping. Martinez produced a magnificent double save to deny Erling Haaland, first blocking a shot from Phil Foden’s pass, then recovering to repel a header from Silva’s cross. The Villa supporters duly hailed the World Cup winner as the best on the planet but thereafter he did not need to be.
His teammates were terrific. If Bailey was the man of the match, Douglas Luiz and McGinn were outstanding. City are the Champions League holders but Villa, the 1982 European Cup winners, are on course for a belated return to the continent’s top table.