Manuel Pellegrini and his players said all the right things on Saturday evening; that they will keep going while it is mathematically possible, that City are the only team in the top four with recent title-winning experience, and that they have come from a long way back to take first prize before.
“We need to continue to believe we can do it,” Pellegrini said. “This team have done it in the past, so we can do it again,” added defender Bacary Sagna.
Perhaps they will be proved right. Four years ago, Roberto Mancini’s City were eight points behind Manchester United with six games left, and became champions. Two seasons ago, Pellegrini’s team were nine points behind Liverpool with five games left, albeit with two matches in hand, and won the league again.
A 4-0 victory over an Aston Villa side on a one-way ticket to the Championship, however, does not necessarily signal that history is about to repeat itself. Skittling out the Premier League’s tail-enders at the Etihad Stadium has not been a problem for City this season; they have instead let themselves down with a failure to beat the teams towards the top. Of the 50 points that Pellegrini’s team have gathered, 41 have been gained against sides currently in the bottom half of the table.
If City cannot improve their record against the country’s leading clubs, they will be nowhere near first place come May. Even Champions League qualification may be under threat. Fortunately for Pellegrini, next Saturday brings a trip to relegation-threatened Norwich, so there may be a chance to build some kind of momentum.
It helps City when Sergio Aguero is on song. There is arguably no better striker in the Premier League than a fully-fit Aguero. He scored twice against Villa; once a little fortunately, after an attempted clearance by Micah Richards rebounded in off his shins, and once with a touch of world class finishing, controlling an exquisite chipped return pass from David Silva and firing in at the near post.
“For me, he is the best player in the league, and probably one of the best players in the world,” Sagna said. “He is the best I have played with. I have played with great players but he is just class.
“He never loses the ball. Even when he seems to lose it, he gets it back and holds it, and manages to create space. He lifts the team up.”
While Aguero’s qualities are unquestionable, this was not a weekend to remember for Wilfried Bony. Given a rare start in a two-man attack, the Ivory Coast international laboured to such an extent that one loose touch early in the second half was met with exasperated groans from the home support.
Bony’s 14 months at City since his £25m move from Swansea have been beset by injuries, poor form, frustration at a lack of game time and even a summer bout of malaria. His troubles on Saturday were summed up in a goalless first-half. First he sliced a shot past the post when clear, then he headed David Silva’s corner a good 10 yards wide.
City found things more straightforward once Yaya Toure had steered in an opening goal three minutes after the interval. Aguero’s double followed, and then came a Raheem Sterling tap-in. Villa were spared further humiliation as Aguero struck the post with a penalty.
Remi Garde appears thoroughly disillusioned with his first experience of English football management. He has collected just 12 points from 18 matches since his appointment in November, and it seems a case of when, rather than if, he will leave.
“I see a group of players who have probably suffered a lot since the beginning of the season,” he said. “Football is about tactics and technique but it is also about mentality. With that they have probably suffered a lot.
“In the first 45 minutes, you saw a team that is committed, dedicated and trying to work hard.
“But all of a sudden when you have a problem, when you concede a goal, we have not enough character, not enough strength to reverse the game. This is our problem at the moment.”
Hart 6; Sagna 6, Kompany 6, Otamendi 6, Clichy 6; Navas 6, Fernandinho 6, Toure 7 (Garcia 80, 6), Silva 7 (Iheanacho 70, 7); Bony 5 (Sterling 62, 7), Aguero 8.
Caballero, Zabaleta, Mangala, Kolarov.
Guzan 6; Hutton 4, Richards 4, Lescott 5, Clark 5, Cissokho 5; Veretout 6 (Bacuna 74, 5), Westwood 5, Gueye 5; Agbonlahor 4 (Gestede 70, 5), Ayew 5 (Sinclair 80, 6).
Bunn, Okore, Lyden, Gil.