So, how many of us saw that one coming?
While defeat at the hands of Paul Lambert is merely par for the course, the gut-wrenching manner of the latest instalment was what set it apart from the others. We’re used to Villa emerging victorious – City have managed just one win in the their last thirteen outings against them – but the way in which events unfolded at Villa Park made this one especially hard to stomach.
You know it’s been a bad one when the morning after the afternoon before begins with a ‘did that really happen’ moment. Hands up if that’s how your Monday started.
And to think it all began so well.
The opening twenty minutes lulled us all into thinking it could be the day when the curse could finally be lifted. Wes Hoolahan’s opener, courtesy of a fine link-up with Gary Hooper, was the start we’d all dreamed of and – muted goal celebration aside – provided the ideal platform on which to construct our third away win of the campaign.
And off the back of recent clean sheets against Manchester City and Tottenham there appeared little reason to doubt City’s ability to hold on to that lead – even one that had been achieved as early as the third minute.
We even looked capable of adding to the lead. Just imagine it… 2-0 up away from home, at Villa Park of all places, with brickbats raining down on the technical area occupied by him. Dreamland.
Alas that’s all it was. A dream.
Instead – despite the promise – it took just another 23 minutes for normal service to be resumed, with Christian Benteke going where Kenwyne Jones and James Collins had gone before; his physical presence unsettling two international centre-backs from whom we should expect better.
And then it dawned on me. Said clean sheets had been earned in the Fine City and we were instead witnessing defending akin to the late malaise at Upton Park and the two minutes of madness in Cardiff. On both occasions some decent work had been undone by individual errors and a lack of concentration.
Except this time we were to go one better. On this occasion the soft underbelly was to cost us four times in the space of sixteen of the most excruciating minutes imaginable, every second of which was played out in front of a watching Sky TV audience.
The definition of footballing torture.
The first goal was without question laced with brilliance – Bentweke’s execution just about as good as it gets – but the capitulation that followed smacked of a mentality so fragile one questions the appetite of some for the battles that lie ahead.
Goals two and four had a recurring theme, which had ‘Man City (a)’ written all over them, but the one that troubled me most was the killer third.
From Wes going within a whisker of making it 2-2 and City duly wasting the resulting corner, the ball was shifted from one end to the other with such ease it was almost inevitable that, given the oodles of time and space in which he found himself, Leandro Bacuna would find the City net.
Too easy. Far too easy. And at 3-1 it was game over.
Did any of us give City a prayer of salvaging the game from that position? No, thought not. And that can’t be right.
The first twenty minutes aside, there were so many things wrong with yesterday’s performance it’s impossible to drill down to each mis-firing component.
The midfield – so lauded following their heroics last weekend – were a shadow of the unit that shackled the skills of Dembele and co. Instead, minus the power and mobility of Leroy Fer, they struggled for any cohesion and fluidity; the ball again being shifted either slowly and with painstaking care or gifted to those in claret and blue. Gone was the high-tempo but precise passing.
Wes – in fairness – did manage to get on the ball and, for those opening twenty at least, did show glimpses of the genius of old. But in the greater scheme of things the change in the midfield dynamic necessitated by Fer’s injury was more damaging than any of us dared imagine.
In hindsight, for all Hoolahan’s wizardry, perhaps by bolting Jonny Howson directly into the hole vacated by the Dutchman it would have retained some of the balance in those central areas. With Wes operating often as a second striker, the wide open spaces – with the game stretched – were simply too much for the Tettey/Johnson combo to deal with. Just how Lambert would have wanted it.
City’s threat out wide was non-existent. Robert Snodgrass, for once, felt the tactical wrath of Chris Hughton and was replaced at half-time by Anthony Pilkington, but to little avail. Nathan Redmond – moved over to the right side at half-time – was another to have a miserable afternoon.
The second half – as is often the case when a game is over by the interval – was a non-event. Lambert appeared to settle for what he had. If Hughton asked for the players to ‘give it a go’ it wasn’t obvious; instead damage limitation mode looked to be the order of the day. Either that, or they simply weren’t good enough to make even a dent in a faltering Villa rearguard.
So… where from here?
Well, in terms of points on the board the win against Tottenham put a credit or two in the bank so there is still plenty left to play for, even if the goal difference took another bashing. But much more of the same and the road ahead will be a very rocky one.
The momentum gained from last weekend’s success has been dealt a sickening blow. We’ve slammed headlong into the buffers, and that’s probably more damaging than the loss of three points and the -3 on the goal difference put together.
With Stoke now another ‘massive’ game (aren’t they all…) one wonders how many more rabbits Hughton has left to pull from the hat.
He’s going to need one… several in fact.