Man City fringe players slot in seamlessly as Grealish makes winning return to Villa Park

Fernandinho returned to the City side. Credit: Getty.Fernandinho returned to the City side. Credit: Getty.
Fernandinho returned to the City side. Credit: Getty.
With so many injuries at present, Pep Guardiola was forced to field several Manchester City players who have struggled for game time this term.

All eyes were on the Manchester City team sheet as it was announced an hour before their Premier League encounter against Aston Villa on Wednesday, but within minutes the talk wasn’t surrounding the role Jack Grealish would play at Villa Park, but that of Nathan Ake, Oleksandr Zinchenko and Fernandinho.

The trio were drafted into the side after Kyle Walker, John Stones and Ilkay Gundogan were ruled out with niggles, along with the suspended Aymeric Laporte, and Kevin De Bruyne, who is still returning from a recent bout of Covid-19. Then there’s the long-term injury for Ferran Torres too.

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It meant there was a quiet sense of confidence among the home supporters in the West Midlands, although that self-belief proved to be unfounded as City wrapped up a 2-1 win thanks to goals from Ruben Dias and Bernardo Silva, which cancelled out Ollie Watkins’s second-half strike.

Zinchenko played at left-back in the win over Villa. Credit: Getty.Zinchenko played at left-back in the win over Villa. Credit: Getty.
Zinchenko played at left-back in the win over Villa. Credit: Getty.

While regulars Rodri, Raheem Sterling and Riyad Mahrez shone for the Premier League champions, the addition of their lesser-used squad members had little impact on the slick City machine.

Ake slotted in alongside Dias at the heart of defence and, excluding a few turns from Watkins, faced little problems from the Villa attack. That his presence in the side was unremarkable highlights his solidity at the back.

The same can be said for Zinchenko, although he also advanced up the line and often moved inside, linking well with Silva and Sterling.

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Yet the standout returnee was Fernandinho, who regularly foiled Villa counter-attacks, excellently shielded the backline with Rodri and set up the move the game.

De Bruyne wasn’t fit to feature in the squad at Villa Park. Credit: Getty.De Bruyne wasn’t fit to feature in the squad at Villa Park. Credit: Getty.
De Bruyne wasn’t fit to feature in the squad at Villa Park. Credit: Getty.

The City skipper picked up the ball deep in his own half, before spraying a wonderfully weighted pass to Jesus down the line. From there, the No.9 whipped the ball into Silva, who subsequently smashed home a first-time volley from the edge of the area.

A game of two halves at Villa Park

It was a rich reward for City’s dominance in the first period, as they pressed Villa high, suffocated them and limited the claret and blues to breakaway attacks. Even those, City managed to stifle with relative ease.

But for all their possession and pressure, the Blues struggled to find a way past a defence and midfield instructed by Steven Gerrard to keep their shape and limit spaces. When the goal came it was from an unlikely source as Dias curled one in with his left foot from all of 25 yards, just beating an unsighted Emiliano Martinez on 27 minutes.

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But the Argentinian had no issue seeing Silva’s unstoppable rocket soar past him just before the break, to ensure the visitors went into half-time with a commanding lead. After a 45 minutes in which City had dominated, the second period wasn’t quite as commanding as Villa, buoyed on by the home support, raised their level.

Watkins’s strike just two minutes after the restart was the perfect response from Villa, who could have won it late on from a Carney Chukwuemeka chance, although it was brilliantly stopped by Ederson.

It was a game of few chances, with City making the most of theirs and departing the Midlands with a thoroughly deserved three points. By the end, the result seemed almost a side plot in Grealish’s sentimental return to Villa Park, just four months on from his £100m move to Manchester.

Grealish faced his boyhood club for the first time since the summer move to City. Credit: Getty.Grealish faced his boyhood club for the first time since the summer move to City. Credit: Getty.
Grealish faced his boyhood club for the first time since the summer move to City. Credit: Getty.

The former Villa poster boy received a mixture of applause and jeers from the home supporters when he was introduced in the final stages, while many fans remained behind afterwards as Grealish walked around his old stomping ground to acknowledge those who used to habitually chant his name.

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For Guardiola, the romance of such a cameo will matter little, although the minutes for a returning first-team star will. Phil Foden was also on the bench for City, but the rest of the substitutes were comprised of youngsters and goalkeepers.

It’s no doubt a concern for Guardiola that his modestly-sized squad is being stretched to its limits during a period where they play eight games in just 24 days. "The moments Rodri and Bernardo play lately is too much,” the City manager admitted post-match. “In six years I never complain because the players are not here.

"I didn’t have any doubts about the commitment or our response because they show me many times. They are not there so they have to recover as quickly as possible. I had 12 players today. If you think I complain because players are not here, it’s not going to happen. They have to recover quickly and compete against these guys who were so strong today.”

While Guardiola may not publicly acknowledge his apprehension, the worry for the Catalan will be the toll this spell is taking on the side’s fitness levels and how sustainable it will be over a longer period, should senior players not return in time for the upcoming matches.

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