Edin Dzeko on double to put City in command in league race
Manchester City 4 Aston Villa 0
Manchester City have nine fingers on the Premier League trophy and the other finger will surely close around it on Sunday. They are two points and 13 goals clear of Liverpool, really needing only to draw against West Ham United here to be crowned champions.
They stayed patient here, constantly believing they would find a way through Aston Villa's obdurate defence.
They broke through after 65 minutes through Edin Dzeko and then stormed through again and again, with another close-range strike from Dzeko, a 20-yarder from Stevan Jovetic and then one of the goals of the season from Yaya Toure.
Toure's run from the halfway line and emphatic finish brought up a special landmark. The last time City scored 100 goals in a top-flight season was in 1957-58 when they hit 104 in 42 games but ended fifth because of a porous defence breached 100 times. They have conceded only 37 times in this campaign.
Dzeko calmed the nerves with those two goals midway through the second half.
Zabaleta eased the fears with his prodigious contribution, his leadership without the armband, his relentless running. Zabaleta and Dzeko stood up for City when they needed them most, banishing apprehension, getting the party started.
Nerves had spread with every one of those 64 goalless minutes for City, early anxiety heard in a cry of "get Negredo on", a plaintive rendition of "Blue Moon" and then chants of "chase it" when Dzeko eased up as the ball bounced through to Brad Guzan.
Villa's keeper was really tested only once before the break when stretching out a leg to block a shot from Yaya Toure.
Tension spread. There were songs in mocking celebration of Steven Gerrard's slip at Anfield against Chelsea, the error having pushed the title race back City's way, and defiance in the voicing of "we're Manchester City, we'll fight to the end".
There was abuse of the assistant referee, Stephen Child, when Dzeko was (rightly) flagged offside. His early travails contrasted with his clinical finishing in the second half.
Bad traffic delayed fans, the rain cascaded down and the first 64 minutes were an exercise in misery for City. Zabaleta always gave them hope, with his persistence down the right, his driving runs and immense determination an example to others. Yet it took more than an hour for Zabaleta to connect most fruitfully with Dzeko.
Until then dissatisfaction ruled. Sighs ensued when City's sharpest attacker, Sergio Aguero, was spotted standing by the entrance to the tunnel, ruled out of action with an adductor problem.
Absence made the heart grow even fonder. Aguero's burst of pace over 10 yards and incisive finishing was much missed. So was Jesus Navas' ability to fly past full-backs, catching opposing defences out with the speed of his movement. City lacked pace during a first half when they simply could not break through the massed ranks of the visitors' defence.
Zabaleta changed that midway through the second half but the wait was vexed. Missing Gabby Agbonlahor and Christian Benteke, Paul Lambert had lined his depleted side up in 5-3-1-1 formation, sitting deep, absorbing City's pressure. Villa's three centre-halves, Ron Vlaar, Nathan Baker and Ciaran Clark stood firm as City came at them again and again.
Ryan Bertrand was working overtime on Villa's left to deal with James Milner and particularly the tireless, peerless right-back Zabaleta. Matthew Lowton was over on the right, looking to track the runs of Aleksandar Kolarov. Andreas Weimann frequently dropped back to help Lowton.
City laboured. They lifted plenty of crosses in but they were dealt with by Villa's tall trio of centre-backs. City switched play, Milner sweeping the ball from right to left to Samir Nasri. The Frenchman darted in from the flank, laid the ball off to David Silva, who returned it sweetly with his instep, creating a yard of space for Nasri. Unfortunately for City, Nasri's shot spiraled over.
City kept running into this wall of blackcurrant-and-white quarter-checks. Clark dispossessed Milner. Lowton calmly chested back an overhit Milner cross to Guzan. Vlaar headed out a dinked Toure ball.
Organised, composed, disciplined: Villa's defending must have been admired by Liverpool, whose twitter site was clearly monitoring events.
Barring the frontrunning Jordan Bowery, Villa had all their players back, even Weimann at times. Weimann still made one break, crossing for Bowery, whose shot drifted wide. Ashley Westwood, who formed Villa's central resistance unit with Karim El Ahmadi and Fabian Delph, broke out through the middle, guiding the ball right to Weimann, who shot from too far out, although still nicking a corner off Zabaleta. Normal service was then resumed. Silva had a shot blocked by Vlaar. Toure's ball into the box was grabbed by Guzan. Zabaleta's cross was blocked by Clark.
Then City wasted a good chance as the half closed. Dzeko laid the ball back to Javi Garcia, who played a pass first time to Milner, who was free down the inside-right channel. Milner drove the ball towards the near-post but Nasri directed it wide.
"It's half-time at the Etihad in the game affecting #LFC at the top of the table and it's Manchester City 0-0 Aston Villa,'' Liverpool tweeted their 2.67m followers. City were getting closer. Zabaleta set the tempo, demanded the effort.
City's other full-back, Kolarov, swept a free-kick over the Villa wall which Guzan punched clear.
Then nirvana for City. Silva picked out Zabaleta, who drilled the ball across for Dzeko, nipping in ahead of the sliding Vlaar, to pounce from close range after 65 minutes.
Within six minutes, lightning struck twice, although with Nasri also involved. Zabaleta crossed from the right again, angling the ball back to Nasri, whose shot was saved by Guzan. Dzeko reacted quickest to the loose ball, coolly stroking it home with his left foot between the stranded Guzan and his left-hand upright.
City now had to see the game out, to defend with more discipline than Liverpool had at Selhurst Park. Martin Demichelis, so improved of late, calmly saw off one Villa attack. Weimann headed against the underside of the bar, the ball bouncing down but not crossing the line.
Dzeko was then replaced to a lengthy ovation by Alvaro Negredo, who was cheered on with cries of "beast". But it was City's other sub, Stevan Jovetic, who had come on for Silva, adding to the party in the final minute. Toure took his time before rolling the ball across for Jovetic to make it 99 league goals for City this season.
City left the best until last, Toure racing through. (© Daily Telegraph, London)
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