WINNER: Fernandinho scored the vital goal against Aston Villa
FA CUP finalists Aston Villa came back to earth with a bang at the Etihad Stadium in battling 3-2 defeat to a Manchester City side determined to restore some credibility to a season which at the turn of the year had promised so much.
The two sets of supporters came to the game with contrasting emotions. Villa, starved of much to cheer for the first two thirds of the season, arrived in fine voice following their Wembley exploits six days earlier. For City meanwhile, the reverse applied, their marked demise since Christmas has seen to that.
But the home fans did have cause to rouse themselves as early as the third minute thanks to a goal gifted to Sergio Aguero. A Cup hangover was no excuse because Villa’s villain Brad Guzan who did not even feature in the 2-1 win over Liverpool.
Usually so reliable between the sticks, the US international goalkeeper will struggle to find a worse opening 10 minutes in his career.
Inexplicably he prodded a relatively straight forward Ron Vlaar back-pass directly into the path of Aguero, who had the easiest of tasks in slotting home.
Guzan's plighte was little helped by the travelling support over his right shoulder, some of whom joined their City counterparts in a chorus of ‘There is only one Shay Given’, the stalwart of both clubs who seems certain to make the starting line-up come Cup Final Day.
Whether Villa contest the showpiece final on May 30 with their Premier League status still intact remains to be seen.
Victories for Leicester City and Hull City and a point for Sunderland earlier in the day make Villa’s position at sixth-from-bottom, seem far more precarious than it did at the start of the day.
But despite trailing by two goals at one stage, Villa did not roll over - they don’t with the new spirit found under the management of Tim Sherwood. However, pointedly, they did not capitalise on it either.
City looked to have put the game to bed in the 66th minute when Aleksandar Kolarov scored from a free-kick, but Villa responded just two minutes later with Tom Cleverley's first goal since joining on loan from Manchester United.
The Midlanders equalised in the 85th minute through Carlos Sanchez. The South American scored his first goal in a Villa shirt with a well-controlled volley after Joe Hart had failed to clear his lines, palming the ball into the Colombian’s path.
But City would have the last laugh following a set piece as Villa “turned their backs” to use Sherwood’s own words.
Fernandinho collected a pass on his chest and finished to give City the vital win, but arguably less vital than it would have been to the visitors.
“We didn’t play well,” admitted City boss Manuel Pellegrini. This was one of our worst games in possession.”
A top four finish now looks secured, but should Champions League football return to the Etihad as seems likely, the question is, will Yaya Toure still feature - and more immediately has he played his last game for the club?
The Ivory Coast international went off at half time with a hamstring injury which may put him out of the season run-in, which if rumours are to be believed may be his last.
Sherwood would welcome that conundrum. “It’s hard enough to beat Manchester City, but we gifted them some goals. The players have belief – and they are disappointed they didn’t win the game let alone draw.
"We showed character and fight, but ability as well. If we play like that for the rest of the season we will be OK,” he said.