Playing just forty-eight hours after victory at Newcastle, Roberto Mancini predictably rang the changes and it was a predictable outcome as City comfortably swept Aston Villa aside. Even Mario Balotelli cracked a smile.
Carlos Tevez, so often the talismanic and key figure of the side, was rested and in his place came Mario Balotelli, restored to the side after questions over his attitude and future at the club. And it was Balotelli who grabbed the headlines once again with a hat-trick in a convincing 4-0 win.
It was another fast start from City: two goals (including their first headed effort of the season) to the good inside the first twenty minutes means it is ten goals inside the first twenty minutes this season – including six in the past seven games. When Balotelli hit his second, hitting home a rebound after great play from Yaya Toure and David Silva, the game was all over with barely thirty minutes on the clock.
As mentioned, Mancini made changes. Tevez was not risked, whilst Gareth Barry and James Milner dropped to the bench with Adam Johnson and Patrick Vieira coming in. There were also starts for Pablo Zabaleta and Micah Richards as Mancini utilised the squad depth that has been built up at the club over the Holiday period. There aren’t many (if any) sides who can boast the depth in quality that Mancini can now call upon; a busy second half to the season will require this and it is impressive that the side can be so inter-changeable without missing a beat.
At times City were fantastic. At Newcastle there were flashes and away from home the side have looked lively but here the movement, pace and cutting edge up front was exceptional. True, Villa were abject and offered little resistance yet City were utterly dominant. Impressive was Balotelli, Adam Johnson and Yaya Toure but David Silva’s performance was such that despite playing for only an hour and Mario Balotelli’s hat-trick he was named man of the match. He really is some player and Villa simply couldn’t handle him.
It is now 34 points from 39 when taking the lead in games. There is an increasingly confident feeling that when the side goes up early, they are not going to throw the lead away. It is draws as much as defeats that can cost a side so early and you feel that it will be some side who manage to overturn a City lead from here on in.
And it certainly wasn’t going to be Villa. As a side they lacked instruction, ideas and belief: I felt they over-achieved under Martin O’Neill last season but this side has fallen badly since then. Gerard Houllier looks to be the wrong choice and the side clearly lack leadership.
City also got some help late with Birmingham’s equaliser against United but looking even further ahead the signs are good. Others around City are stuttering for form and City are arguably the most convincing side based on recent form and results.
Mancini was often criticised early in the season for some negative showings, yet he clearly built from the back first with the thought process to get those pieces in place and they are the platform and foundation in which the attacking and creative elements can be launched. The side are averaging over 1.5 goals per game with a defence that was once again changed, but yet again solid.
The side has now had half a season playing together. By and large the same sixteen or so players have featured and the side is looking like one that is growing increasingly familiar with each other.
Mancini has called upon the side to put a run together, to post a dozen unbeaten which is something they are yet to achieve. But they know they are legitimately in the title race and are exuding confidence. City may have held top spot only briefly, but they are most definitely here to stay.