Premier League – City end Villa hopes, Liverpool hanging on
Manchester City sealed a 3-1 Premier League win over Aston Villa at Eastlands that boosted their chances of finishing fourth, ended the visitors’ Champions League aspirations and left Liverpool‘s slim hopes of a top four finish hanging by a thread.
The again-excellent Craig Bellamy added a last-minute third to give City a win that keeps them a point behind Tottenham Hotspur with two matches to play – including one with Spurs at Eastlands on Wednesday that could decide who takes the all-important fourth Champions League qualification spot.
With Villa now three points behind Spurs and two off City with one match less to play, they cannot come fourth in the event of any result and only have an outside chance of finishing fifth.
If Liverpool are to fulfil coach Rafael Benitez’s promise of fourth place they need to win their last two games – including Sunday’s showdown against Chelsea – and hope a City-Spurs draw is followed by final-day defeats for both.
A slow start was understandable given the stakes for both sides and it took 10 minutes for either side to create anything of note, Brad Friedel forced into action after Bellamy’s cross was deflected off Villa defender Carlos Cuellar.
City had more of the ball while Villa sat and looked for the break and it initially worked for Martin O’Neill’s side when, just after the quarter-hour mark, on-loan keeper Marton Fulop failed to hold John Carew’s low shot and the hosts went ahead.
The hosts tried to bite back immediately, with Kolo Toure’s finish blocked by Richard Dunne and Friedel denying the unmarked Adebayor a certain goal as he tipped away Bellamy’s glorious left-wing cross.
Down the other end Fulop – controversially signed from Sunderland this week after an injury to keeper Shay Given – was hardly covering himself in glory, dropping a James Milner drive but able to cling on and standing rooted to the spot as Stewart Downing flashed an effort wide.
The Eastlands crowd was getting impatient and City responded with a barrage of pressure that saw Stephen Warnock lucky not to concede a penalty after handling Tevez’s shot while Dunne made a perfectly-timed tackle to deny the Argentine.
Fulop did make one good stop, tipping away Milner’s drive on 40 minutes, and within 60 seconds City had the chance to level when Warnock was not given a second chance by referee Martin Atkinson after sliding in and catching Adam Johnson.
Tevez dispatched the penalty but, strangely, seemed annoyed with himself for not making cleaner contact, while his team-mates turned their backs on him in muted celebration.
There was little time to consider the implications of that moment as, straight from kick-off, Villa had hit the bar through Carew’s rasping effort.
Anyone who left their seat early to beat the half-time pie rush would have been kicking themselves as, from that chance City broke and went ahead when Adebayor poked home Johnson’s low cross following a superb run and pass from Patrick Vieira.
There was still time for Fulop to set the hearts of home fans racing when he flapped at a cross from Ashley Young, but Bellamy was on hand to clear from Carew and City went into half-time a goal to the good.
With no change at the break for either side, the second half moved along in similar fashion, with City keeping the ball and Villa looking for opportunities on the break.
Five minutes in Fulop did well to tip Young’s cross behind as it headed for the top left, while soon afterwards Young failed to connect with Downing’s deep cross from the right when a bigger man would have made contact.
For City, Bellamy forced a good stop from Friedel after cutting inside from the left and curling a right-footer inside the far post, but chances were few and far between as two different but evenly-matched sides cancelled each other out.
O’Neill took a risk when, with just over a quarter of an hour left, he opted for a front three, bringing on English strike duo Emile Heskey and Nathan Delfouneso.
Villa cranked the pressure up but, with Pablo Zabaleta particularly impressive with two blocks on Delfouneso, City held firm and almost nicked a third when Adebayor and Tevez had shots blocked in quick succession.
The hosts sealed the win in the 90th minute when, after a good run inside from the left by sub Shaun Wright-Phillips, Bellamy curled an unstoppable effort past Friedel into the top right to keep boss Roberto Mancini’s fourth-place target realistic.
Reda Maher / Eurosport