Despite a long period without joy and some questionable calls by Manuel Pellegrini, City came through comfortably
Surely, now, Manchester City will manage the draw required against West Ham United in this stadium on the season's final day to claim the crown. City won but, my, did they make it hard. The fizz with which Manuel Pellegrini's team started proceedings suggested there would be no repeat of the 2-2 slip-up against Sunderland last month. Early on, Aleksandar Kolarov and Edin Dzeko threatened to make it comfortable but as time went on it was City's (almost-toothless) attack against Aston Villa's (stubborn) defence. Ahead of kickoff Pellegrini said: "Today I am not thinking about the title, it is important to play the way we did so far. You never know what happens in football. Everyone has said we win it already but I don't see it that way. I don't want to talk about the title." Two more "heavy" late Dzeko goals – plus later strikes by Stevan Jovatic and Yaya Touré – mean that this is all that will be discussed until Sunday.
The answer to this, with the contest scoreless until Dzeko's 63rd-minute strike was simple: yes. Until then, the match was a possession-fest for City that yielded no end product whenever Villa's goal was sighted. In Agüero's place, Pellegrini had eschewed the option of another dedicated forward to play behind Dzeko – both Álvaro Negredo and Jovetic were left on the bench – for the silkier offerings of David Silva. Yet while he was the nominal No10, the creative gene runs stronger in the Spaniard than any instinct to pull the trigger. Agüero, who has somehow managed 28 goals despite sizeable layoffs (he missed tonight due to recovery from a groin problem), watched on in hooded top from the tunnel. The dilly-dallying he witnessed whenever Silva and cohorts entered the opposing area was summed up by the chance moments from the break that ended up as an unwanted outbreak of tiki-taka near the Villa penalty spot.
Before sending out a side that lined up with five in defence, the Villa manager Paul Lambert said: "We know it's going to be hard but we will certainly try and cause City problems. Sometimes, I know from experience at Celtic it can get edgy at times. Human nature dictates that. We know they have done this before, which will help them, but there is still edginess there. We expect them to have a fast start but it's up to us to go and stop it." As the contest went on, this prognosis was proved sage-like, though with the quick feet of Fabian Delph, Karim El Ahmadi and Andreas Weisman, Villa always carried a menace whenever Villa broke on the counter.
With Fernandinho, Touré's regular midfield companion, relegated to the bench, Javi García was asked to hold whenever Touré went forward, in what was Garcia's fifth consecutive start, the best run of his debut season. Here, Garcia was to patrol behind the front six as they fanned forward and provide the metronomic passes whenever a move stalled, as one did on 24 minutes for García to illustrate he too can play: in a split-second a pivot lost his man and the attack was reignited. Yet while acting on instructions to defer to Touré, what Pellegrini lost in standing down Fernandinho from the XI was the extra threat that allows him to join the attack and has yielded five goals. As the match moved into the final section and City still searched for the breakthrough, Pellegrini's decision to leave the 29-year-old out appeared to have backfired until the Dzeko double that kept his side on course.
On 27 minutes Touré fashioned the kind of majestic moment that allows him to coast along in premium class while opponents appear to struggle to find their comfort zone. After Samir Nasri's loose ball allowed Villa a rare attack the threat was killed, Touré received possession, and swept a 60-yard pass into acres of turf that released James Milner. Yet this and a shot blocked on the line early on by the visiting captain, Ron Vlaar, were about the best the No42 offered until he awoke at the death to run 50 yards and smash home a memorable fourth. Beforehand, Touré said: "We have never stopped believing and even when we lost to Liverpool and drew with Sunderland we kept going. With the players we have and the experience of 2012 we can keep on. Its vital we keep our focus until the final kick of the season." Last up here on Sunday are Sam Allardyce's West Ham, against whom Manchester City hope that Touré is fully awake throughout what will be a crucial match for the club.