Perhaps Manchester City need to spend a bit more money. Darren Bent may not be everyone's idea of a £24m player but he got his Aston Villa career off to a dream start with a goal after 18 minutes that earned three precious points for Gérard Houllier's strugglers and dashed the visitors' hopes of returning to joint top with Manchester United.
Bent did not do an awful lot more than score the winner, and neither were Villa transformed into an attacking force to be reckoned with by his arrival, although this was a game they might not have won a week ago. Their confidence was visibly lifted, even if they did have to endure a siege situation in the final 10 minutes, when City piled on the pressure but kept inventing new ways to miss the target.
The equaliser never came, Edin Dzeko had a more disappointing afternoon than on his debut a week ago, and City were far less inventive and incisive than they had been against Wolves.
City had only themselves to blame for Bent's opening goal. They had just broken up a Villa attack and Kolo Touré had all the time in the world to weigh up his options with no one anywhere near him in the centre of his own half. From that position he executed an extremely poor pass that immediately put David Silva under pressure on halfway, Stewart Downing regained possession and swiftly moved the ball forward, and when Joe Hart could only palm out Ashley Young's low curling shot the man of the moment was on hand to tuck away the loose ball. Not the greatest goal Bent will ever score, but an ideal way to start life as Villa's record signing.
Brad Friedel made a good stop from a Vincent Kompany header to prevent City equalising almost immediately from an Aleksandar Kolarov corner. The left-back was City's liveliest attacking player in the first half, which perhaps tells its own story, although as the interval approached the visitors were putting Friedel's goal under all the pressure, with Villa increasingly penned in their own half.
Edin Dzeko, last week's big money signing, is yet to open his goal account for City and was unable to reach Kolarov's cross from the left after Yaya Touré had split open the Villa defence. The Bosnian unselfishly tried to set up Carlos Tevez a few minutes later, only for James Collins to make an important intervention, and Gareth Barry – booed throughout – was close with a header from Jérôme Boateng's cross.
Villa's interval lead was therefore by courtesy of their only decent attempt of the first half, although that is exactly why clubs spend fortunes on strikers who can make the most of limited chances. At least the home side managed to give Hart something to think about just before the break, when he was required to stop long shots from Young and Downing. Both efforts were well struck, but both went much too close to the goalkeeper.
Dzeko headed narrowly over from a corner early in the second half before Roberto Mancini put the labouring Barry out of his misery, replacing him with Adam Johnson. In what struck the amused crowd as adding insult to injury Barry had just spoiled a Yaya Touré run by straying offside before receiving the pass, and turned to see a flag raised on one side of the pitch and his number being held up on the other.
City were again doing most of the attacking yet Villa managed to create a few half chances around the hour mark. First a back pass from Kompany forced an error from Hart, but Marc Albrighton could not shoot quickly enough when an attempted clearance came straight to him. Young was unlucky with a cross that rolled across the face of goal and a shot that brought a diving save from Hart, before Albrighton squandered a promising position by overhitting a first time cross with Bent and Gabriel Agbonlahor waiting unmarked in the middle.
In the closing stages Nigel de Jong saw a pile-driving shot deflected on to a post, Kompany had a similar effort diverted to safety by Carlos Cuéllar, and just when Johnson sent over a cross that looked perfect for Dzeko the striker sent his header the wrong side of the post. It was a day to remember for the new big spenders, one to forget for the old ones.
THE FANS' PLAYER RATINGS AND VERDICT
MARK RUTTER, Observer reader Darren Bent. He had one chance and he took it – that is what all that money was spent for. Bent was excellent. He worked extremely hard, as did the whole team. It was obvious we had a very definite game plan to give them the ball in their area but to press them hard when they came close to goal. Tevez was playing very deep. We had them playing in areas where they couldn't hurt us. James Collins was immense, a proper tower of strength. Houllier has needed the time to get his senior players back and now, with the youth coming through and Makoun coming in, the future looks vibrant.
The fan's player ratings Friedel 7; Cuéllar 7, Collins 9, Dunne 8, Clark 8; Petrov 7 (Reo-Coker 88 n/a); Albrighton 8, Young 7, Downing 7, Agbonlahor 7; Bent 8
ENA PARKINSON, Observer reader Very disappointed – Villa looked like the away team. The only time they had the ball was when we gave it away. If you score more goals you deserve to win but I thought they were poor. On the other hand, Joe Hart needs to take stock – he's got a bit lazy and lackadaisical. Sometimes you think you're lucky to get anything out of a game – we've certainly been in that position. This was the opposite. We played well enough to win. The second half was an onslaught and several times we thought the ball had gone in. Villa should be very relieved. It was just one of those days.
The fan's player ratings Hart 5; Boateng 6, K Touré 6, Kompany 8, Kolarov 7; De Jong 8, Barry 7 (Johnson 57 7), Y Touré 6; Silva 7, Dzeko 6, Tevez 7
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