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Aston Villa show strain at Manchester City

04 March 2009 09:44
This is what it's like when you play with the big boys. Wins for all three of their rivals for those money-spinning Champions League spots 24 hours previously had put all of the onus on Villa here. At a ground that is a litmus test of those with European credentials, Villa froze. They had no answer to Manchester City's enthusiasm, no way of clawing their way back into a game after Elano's penalty had given Mark Hughes's side a richly-deserved leadl, extended late on by Shaun Wright-Phillips. The fear is palpable among the players and the fans. Eight months' good work could be undone by one dip in form. Martin O'Neill's squad contains just a handful of players with Champions League experience and fewer still who know about the long, hard road involved in getting there. Only Emile Heskey and John Carew have dealt with such strain before. For their young team-mates, life at the cutting edge is proving tough. That anxiety has spread to their play in recent weeks. After a middle third of the season where they swept all before them, Villa have stumbled. No win in five, dispatched with little fuss from the FA and Uefa Cups. O'Neill only has eyes for the league. The real task, though, starts now. O'Neill has done well to endure the marathon. To break the Big Four cartel, Villa need to learn how to sprint. On this evidence, his small squad do not have the legs. Gone is the urgency which captivated just a few months ago, the sense of the impetuousness of youth which took them to where they are. Here they looked limp and lifeless, scarcely threatening Shay Given's goal. City, even without injury victims Craig Bellamy and Robinho, sensed the visitors were there for the taking. Shaun Wright-Phillips, restored to the side after his three-game suspension, had energy to burn. Stephen Ireland was almost back to his early season best. The real star of the show, though, was Elano. The much-maligned Brazilian is loved and hated in equal measure by City's fans. At turns capable of great genius and great sloth, some see him as a creative fulcrum and others as a source of dressing room disharmony. Hughes probably sees both, but he gave him his chance here and he duly delivered. One beautifully crafted through ball gave Ireland a gilt-edged chance within 10 minutes, only to see Zat Knight deny him on the line. The Brazilian then robbed Curtis Davies and laid on a shot for Vincent Kompany which the Belgian dragged wide. While he had no part to play as Wright-Phillips somehow shot wide when clean through from Ireland's ball, it was Elano who made and scored the opener. Ireland beat two men on the edge of the box and picked out the Brazilian, whose reverse ball set Wright-Phillips in. James Milner tangled with the England winger in the box and referee Chris Foy had no choice but to point to the spot, allowing Elano to convert calmly. Earlier this campaign that would have sparked a reaction from Villa, but their spirit has drained away. Now there are only nerves.  

Source: Telegraph