They came back from a Covid crisis straight into Storm Christoph and a Manchester City onslaught. For the best part of 80 minutes, Aston Villa withstood it too.
They put bodies on the line, battled through the driving rain at the Etihad and, yes, rode their luck at times.
Just when it seemed as though it might be enough to earn a remarkable point, City found a way through to go top of the Premier League for the first time since August 2019 – at least for a little while.
Bernardo Silva celebrates after breaking the deadlock against Aston Villa with a brilliant strike
Silva found the net with a powerful effort from the edge of the box in the 79th minute
The Portuguese midfielder’s stunning goal sparked big celebrations from the home side
MATCH FACTS AND PREMIER LEAGUE TABLE
MAN CITY (4-3-3): Ederson 6.5; Walker 6 (Zinchenko 28, 6), Stones 6.5, Dias 6.5, Cancelo 6; De Bruyne 6.5 (Gabriel Jesus 59, 6), Rodri 7, Gundogan 7; Sterling 6 (Mahrez 72, 6.5), Silva 8, Foden 7.5. Subs: Steffen, Torres, Mendy, Fernandinho, Garcia, Bernabe.
Scorers: Silva 79, Gundogan pen 90
Manager: Pep Guardiola 7.5
ASTON VILLA (4-2-3-1): Martinez 7; Cash 6, Konsa 7, Mings 7, Targett 6.5 (Taylor 75, 5.5); Luiz 6, Barkley 6.5 (Ramsey 68, 6); Traore 6.5 (El Ghazi 68, 6), Grealish 7, McGinn 6; Watkins 6. Subs: Heaton, Nakamba, Engels, Guilbert, El Mohamady, Davis.
Booked: Taylor, McGinn
Manager: Dean Smith 7
Referee: Jon Moss 5
Season at a glance
- Premier League
- Premier League
- League One
- League Two
- Scottish Premiership
- Scottish Div 1
- Scottish Div 2
- Scottish Div 3
- Ligue 1
- Serie A
- La Liga
Villa were furious about the breakthrough goal from Bernardo Silva in the 79th minute. Rodri was clearly returning from an offside positon when he ambushed Tyrone Mings and stole the ball after Silva had met a clearance from goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez.
Rodri played it to Silva who had four defenders around him and was still 25 yards from goal. He worked the space for a shot and despatched it with stunning accuracy inside Martinez’s right-hand post.
Villa boss Dean Smith was apoplectic and with some justification. This was Villa’s first game since their last visit to Manchester to face United on New Year’s Day after nine players and five staff tested positive for Covid, and it must have felt like a kick in the teeth after coming so close.
Smith made his feelings known to referee Jon Moss who came over to the touchline to book him and then produced a red card when the manager reacted badly.
Villa’s resistance was broken and they conceded again in the 90th minute when Matthew Cash raised an arm to handle Gabriel Jesus’s header from a Riyad Mahrez cross. Moss pointed to the spot and Ilkay Gundogan stepped up to convert.
So 16 games unbeaten for City and nine straight wins in all competitions. The only bad news was injuries to Kevin De Bruyne and Kyle Walker that forced both players to go off.
For Villa, there are no points for effort but they fought so hard here.
They came into the game after just three days training and a three-week lay-off due to the virus outbreak that had forced the club to call off Premier League fixtures against Everton and Tottenham, and field the Under-23s in the FA Cup third round defeat to Liverpool.
Smith was able to put out a full-strength team on paper, but just how ready his players were to face a team like City was another matter. For the first 45 minutes they certainly stood up well to the pressure as the home side enjoyed 69 per cent of the possession and produced 13 shots.
On several occasions it looked as though City would open the scoring only for a Villa player to throw himself in the way, and never more so than a goalmouth scramble in the fourth minute.
Rodri headed De Bruyne’s corner to the back post where Silva – chosen as the false nine by Guardiola on this occasion – looked certain to score.
Silva met the ball first-time and should really have found the back of the net, but goalkeeper Martinez stretched out his left boot to keep it out and Mings and Cash did put off John Stones and Gundogan in a frantic scramble for the loose ball.
Ezri Konsa got his body in the way of Phil Foden’s effort after the City youngster left two defenders in his wake, Mings blocked De Bruyne’s goalbound effort from Gundogan’s pullback and Cash denied Foden again in first-half injury-time following a breakaway and another sublime pass from De Bruyne.
Guardiola didn’t have it all his own way though. He was forced to take off Walker following a collision with Jack Grealish eight minutes earlier, with Joao Cancelo switching sides and Oleksandr Zinchenko taking over on the left.
Villa settled into the game too after a one-sided start and threatened on the break although their only encouragement was a slip by Stones that he quickly corrected and a hopeful handball appeal against Cancelo in his own box.
The only real test for Ederson was a comfortable save from Ross Barkley – returning after a two-month absence – who tried to curl a shot inside the post after he was teed up by Grealish.
The half finished with City in the ascendancy again as Smith raged at referee Moss for warning Martinez for time-wasting, and Mings clearing De Bruyne’s cross into the second tier of the stands which takes some doing at the Etihad.
Villa threatened again after the interval, another breakaway allowing Bertrand Traore to shrug off De Bruyne and cut inside before bringing another routine save from Ederson.
But City still looked the most likely to score first and so nearly did when De Bruyne set up Cancelo who dummied his way past Mings and clipped the bar from 20 yards.
It was De Bruyne’s last meaningful contribution as he was replaced by Gabriel Jesus just before the hour mark after appearing to pull up sharply.
Gundogan bundled the ball wide after another melee in the Villa box, had another effort blocked by Mings and then forced Martinez into a diving save when he headed Foden’s cross goalwards, the keeper somehow scrambling the ball away with his feet as Ruben Dias tried to turn it over the line.
Villa continued to spring forward on the counter-attack, though, and Traore had a shot blocked before Ederson held onto Douglas Luiz’s effort.
But City found a way through, much to their relief and Villa’s fury.
Scroll down to see how it all unfolded with Sportsmail’s live runner.