What on earth did Gerrard say at half-time? Whatever was said or done in the privacy of the dressing room, certainly changed the entire dynamic of a game in which Villa looked set to be mere spectators.
Villa were tested to their limits in the first half, with Man City dominant for prolonged periods. It was a masterclass of precision passing, technically excellent movement and in the case of Bernardo Silva, outstanding finishing.
Indeed, after Dias’ opener following much probing and the thunderous volley from Silva, it began to feel as though we would be in for a cold and difficult evening.
The first half was in some ways a cliche. Villa literally chased shadows. There were numerous instances where desperate scrambles ensued as the ball was shifted at speed, with Gerrard watching on, wondering if his side would make it to the middle third of the pitch.
The half-time whistle was needed. Villa emerged a different beast. We harried, chased and denied Man City the time they’d enjoyed in the opening 45.
After good early pressure from Ashley Young, Villa forced a corner. From this, Watkins fashioned a very smart finish in off the near post. This breathed confidence into the side and City’s calm and collected demeanor did appear to crack.
There were costs for us too. Leon Bailey, plagued by injury since his arrival, pulled up with what appeared to be a hamstring injury. Matt Targett withdrew, presumably concussed. Alarmingly too substitute Morgan Sanson was observed holding his groin for the remainder of the game after overstretching when fouled. The Frenchman looked very assured before this, so hopefully it amounts to nothing.
There is much to take away. McGinn was a constant thorn, physically a menace, and tirelessly hard working. Buendia, whilst guilty of picking the wrong pass on occasion, moved deftly and contributed during a number of interplays. Luiz was perhaps the stand-out midfield performer. Physical, energetic and skillful.
This renewed confidence brought with it two golden opportunities.
We’ll never know how Konsa’s attempt to scramble the ball over the goal-line went wide of the post. His penalty appeal too was waved away by Mike Dean and VAR.
Carney Chukwuemeka, rumoured to be stalling on a new deal, could have staked a serious claim for first team action. The midfielder’s smart run between defenders saw the ball arrive at his feet. His effort was beaten away by Ederson, with the whole ground willing the ball into the net.
It was such a turnaround in performance, that despite the result, few could have walked away without a sense of positivity. This was no feeble, resigned defeat to a team who’ll be competing for the title. It was a spirited, determined and unifying team effort which can be carried into important upcoming fixtures.
Grealish made his cameo, to a mixture of abuse, boos and applause. The sound of ‘Villa ‘Till I Die’ reverberated around Villa Park; the meaning and poignancy quite appropriate. At full time, as Villa players deservedly accepted appreciation from the stands, Grealish tentatively acknowledged the crowd. It’s time for all to move on.