Aston Villa vs. Manchester City – Saturday October 4 – Kick-off 17:30
When Manchester City last travelled to Villa Park things weren’t so dissimilar to how they are now. Manuel Pellegrini was under pressure to get a result, there were question marks over how the team were performing in his set-up and the Blues were leaking daft – and preventable – goals.
Of course, the intricacies are different. It was the away form that was patchy back then, while the club is currently on a run of just two wins in their last seven games. The 4-4-2 system the manager was employing was drawing concerns about its inflexibility, while this time it’s that it’s causing the Blues to be overrun in midfield. And, of course, questions marks over Joe Hart’s form were a worry…
They still are now.
Of course, Hart may or may not start on Saturday evening. Pellegrini’s cards are so close to his chest on his team selection these days that they’ve leaving an impression on his jacket, while he ceases to surprise anyone now that he’s pulled all the rabbits out of the nearby hats. Martin Demichelis, Eliquim Mangala and James Milner were all subject to the rotation policy in the last week and few would have expected it.
The goalkeeper, though, was just one of the villains of the piece last season. His headless chicken charge from goal in the second half, which gifted the eventual winner to Andreas Weimann, was symptomatic of where his head was at the time. He was clouded by a lack of confidence as his abilities deserted him – though some will question whether those abilities are enough to be demanding the number one shirt at Manchester City on the back of the last 18 months or so.
His partner in crime was Matija Nastasic – a man who, save for a freak stomach bug wiping through the defence or something of that ilk, is likely to feature in nothing more than an observational role from the stands. You get the impression that Pellegrini doesn’t trust the Serbian, despite his good performances in the 2012-13 season; a combination of mistakes and injuries in the time the Chilean has been in Manchester certainly hasn’t helped his cause.
Last season, Nastasic’s clumsy free kick gave away the chance to shoot for the second goal – a free kick Hart may have done better with – and his calamitous mix-up with Vincent Kompany saw the ball bounce through for the third. Had there been both communication and cover, the goalkeeper would have stayed on his line as one of the defenders hammered it into the stands.
It turned out not to be a crucial defeat in the grand scheme of things, as the Blues went on to lift the league title – but on a run of two wins in seven, Pellegrini’s men can’t really afford another slip up like it. Lessons have to have been learned, and a run of one away defeat in the league in the last 15 is of comfort to the travelling fans.
Should the champions be leading twice on Saturday evening as they were at Villa park last season, there really would be no excuses for not winning.
City welcome back Fernando after missing the last six matches. The Brazilian midfielder, who looked superb in the first three games of the season before he pulled a groin muscle in the defeat to Stoke, returns to bolster the midfield. Pellegrini told reporters at his pre-match press conference on Friday: “We have just one player injured, Samir Nasri. All the others are fit. Both of [Matija Nastasic and Fernando] are fit.”
It’s a big boost to City. Fernando brings a real determination to win back possession. He has superb energy levels and ability to tackle player. He’s like Nigel De Jong but…better – his game far more sophisticated and expansive than the Dutchman’s ever was.
City can’t afford anymore slip ups. They are five points behind Chelsea as things stand and although many will point to the fact Pellegrini’s men overhauled Arsenal and Liverpool last season – spending just 15 days at the top of the league before winning the title – Jose Mourinho’s men look far better than anything City had to compete with during the last campaign.
“We are just starting. It is not good to be five points behind Chelsea,” he said. “In this moment we have one point more than last year, Arsenal was maybe six points ahead of us.
“We didn’t win the first three games away. Today, we have seven points from nine away. It is not good to be five points behind.
“But things can happen, important things and we will try to continue playing the way we did against Hull.”
It’s just one defeat in 15 away matches in the Premier League, a record City need to extend to keep Chelsea in their sights.