That’s it. It’s official. It’s over. We are back in the Championship.
For some reason, it feels like a relief. Perhaps numbed by the despair of previous relegations. Perhaps because, like Christmas, we have known this is coming for so long now it is no longer a shock to the system.
On his return to his old club, Dean Smith rolled the dice once again in a vain attempt to find a solid back four. Sam Byram moved to the centre, Max Aarons came back in and Brandon Williams replaced Dimi Giannoulis on the left. The rest was planned as unchanged but Kenny McLean pulled up in the warm-up meaning Billy Gilmour came in as part of the defensive pair in front of the back four.
Villa started strongly, with a very high press in an attempt to unsettle City. They nearly succeeded, giving the City back four some nervy moments. The press wasn’t just on the back four – Gilmour and Mathias Normann were policed tenaciously.
Of the two loanees, Gilmour was missing for the first 20 minutes whilst Normann persistently gave the ball away, or surrendered possession weakly and then fouled in an attempt to recover.
After 10 minutes, City finally got the ball forward to Teemu Pukki who tussled with Tyrone Mings and was eventually penalised. The first act in a repetitive play that went on all afternoon.
As Villa moved forward, Williams made a strong tackle on Bailey on the Villa right, winning the ball but the Villa wide man went over and stayed down for a long time.
City then began to gain a little confidence, stringing together some good moves from the back. They even had a shot of sorts. Aarons played the ball to Pierre Lees-Melou who pulled the trigger and misfired – the ball rolling out somewhere mid-way between the corner and the goal.
Now that they had weathered the early storm, City began to create problems for themselves. But too many stray passes. Too many times caught in possession.
The reason? Perhaps you could accuse some of the City players of hiding from the ball – making all the right moves but never committing themselves to the move, perhaps too afraid that they would concede. That makes it difficult for the likes of Normann and Gilmour to make the passes. Pukki, of course, could not have that accusation levelled at him as he once again ran the hard yards to little effect.
The best moment of the half until then came after Normann lost just such a ball. Villa came forward and won a corner. The initial danger was cleared but came to Bailey who curled a shot goalwards. Tim Krul made a superb save, tipping the ball onto the bar.
City were actually defending quite well and appeared to have nullified the Villa threat. They had a decent spell of possession over several phases of play and you could sense the restlessness amongst the home crowd. As City recycled the ball again and prepared to mount another attack, the referee called a halt as Bailey had gone down injured.
After another lengthy spell, play resumed and as the ball went straight out for a throw, Bailey was withdrawn and Danny Ings introduced.
Forty minutes had passed. And that is how long it took for City to make another entry into the ‘improbable and embarrassing ways to concede a goal’ compilation. Ings, with practically his first touch, played a ball from the left to Ollie Watkins.
The man who followed Dean Smith from Brentford to Villa headed the ball across goal and Williams was in pole position to clear the danger -except that he lost his footing. Watkins gleefully took the ball and hammered it into the roof of the net past Krul and a despairing lunge from Sam Byram.
City had a great chance to equalize three minutes later. Rashica was hauled down by Chambers, earning a yellow for his efforts. Judging by the way he used his hand on Rashica’s face, he may have been lucky with just a yellow.
Kieran Dowell curled the kick in, Grant Hanley headed back across goal and Williams could only direct his diving header over the bar.
The second half followed the same pattern as the first. Villa started strongly, City weathered the storm and worked their way back into it but to no avail.
Once their initial burst failed to produce a goal, Villa backed off, relying on hitting City on the break. City, when they had the ball, could never get anyone up in support of Pukkiand when the Finn went looking for the ball, he had no one to play the ball to.
Lees-Melou made way for Josh Sargent on 65 minutes. For 15 minutes, his physical presence was a useful addition to the City armoury but he then limped off disconsolately to be replaced by Lukas Rupp. Rashica also gave way for Jon Rowe, the youngster making several bursts down the left without being able to find any magic.
The game was fizzling out with Villa content to keep possession and run down the clock. When City did win the ball, invariably Mings was on hand to outmuscle the City players. But at least Watford were level with Burnley… at that point.
Steven Gerrard introduced Emi Buendia with 10 minutes to go. As the Argentinian when literally toe-to-toe with Aarons, the City full-back cried out in pain. And like a great disturbance in the force, the City fans groaned as one, not in sympathy, but as the news filtered through that Burnley had taken the lead.
The agony was complete in added time. Williams was dispossessed by Watkins who played the ball to you-know-who – Buendia performed a couple of tricks only for Krul to palm away the shot, but Ings reacted quickest on the turn and hammer home the second.
The game was a microcosm of the season. Struggled to start. Got better. Had bad luck. Struggled again, got a bit better than fizzled out. I’m not sure which ‘yo’ of ‘yoyo’ we are on at the moment but Dean Smith now faces a big job if City are indeed to ‘yo’ back to the Premier League next season.
Finally a big shout out to the travelling fans. Loud and proud throughout the game, right to, and after the final whistle.