Swansea City enjoyed an "iconic" 2011 according to Brendan Rodgers: at Villa park they began the new year on a fresh seasonal high, not only winning away from home for the first time in the Premier League but producing a display of tightly drilled and at times exhilarating passing football in a 2-0 defeat of a committed but leaden-footed Aston Villa.
"My players were brilliant," Rodgers said afterwards. "Everything that is good in our game was evident. Our pressing, our passing our interchanges. We spoke last night about our resolve, showing that bit more steel and at the end of it we got our reward."
It was a surprisingly comprehensive reward. With Villa still giddy from their own stunningly incisive 3-1 defeat of Chelsea at Stamford Bridge on Saturday there was a skirl of sozzled, post-festive optimism around a near-full house Villa Park as the home team kicked off under cold, clear, blue skies. It did not last long.
As they had against Tottenham Hotspur, Swansea settled with ominous purpose in an adventurous 4-2-3-1 formation. Albeit it took a terribly sleepy defensive mistake from Stephen Warnock to create the opening goal after four minutes. Warnock's cross-field pass out of defence was intercepted by the ever-alert Nathan Dyer, who advanced in on goal and shot low into the right-hand corner.
Afterwards Alex McLeish was distraught at conceding such a soft early goal. "It was frightening," the Villa manager said. "You can't give goals like that away. After such a good performance at the weekend the confidence was high but we shot ourselves in the foot."
Villa responded to their self-hobbling with a splutter of activity from the attacking trio of Gabriel Agbonlahor, Charles N'Zogbia and Stephen Ireland, all of whom played near, but perhaps not near enough, to Darren Bent: one right wing cross from the fleet-footed but excitable Agbonlahor resembled a hammer-footed rugby conversion.
Driven on by Ireland's promptings, Villa forced a series of corners but Swansea still seemed better drilled in midfield behind their own lone frontman Danny Graham, with Dyer and Wayne Routledge surging forward with timely menace and the ball‑hog Leon Britton patrolling the centre like a South Wales Xavi.
On the half hour a sublime touch infield on the move by Dyer left Warnock in a heap of twisted blood by the touchline, a moment of skill that would have been rewarded with a goal but for Brad Guzan's subsequent save from Graham's shot.
Booed off at half‑time, things got worse for the home team within two minutes of the restart. This time the tormentor was Routledge, picking up Guzan's clearance with a deft touch on the left wing, prancing past the apparently invisible Carlos Cuéllar and setting up Graham for a shot that hit the post. Routledge buried the rebound as Villa's defence stood and watched.
It was a finish of deceptive nonchalance: this was his first Premier League goal in 116 appearances, seven years after he made his debut for Crystal Palace ("incredible when you look at his talent," said Rodgers).
Led by the ever-willing Agbonlahor, Villa counter-punched without precision, their frustration embodied by Richard Dunne's boneheaded booking just before the hour for pushing Dyer in the chest, presumably having despaired of legal means of restricting the game's star man.
Villa's main source of attacking thrust remained corners and long balls, under which the mid-sized but pleasingly springy Michel Worm remained resolute. Swansea, ever‑dangerous on the break, came close to extending their lead late on, but the substitute Joe Allen was foiled by a brave plunging save from Guzan that left the keeper with a badly bloodied nose.
In the fifth minute of added time Villa finally came close to scoring themselves, N'Zogbia's snap shot hitting the bar with a thud that prefigured the loud boos that rang around Villa Park at the final whistle.
"The fans just want to see us win," McLeish said. "To lose at home is a kick in the teeth to them as it is to me."