Manchester City prevailed in an edgy encounter at Villa Park on Monday, with Carlos Tevez's solitary goal a minute before halftime serving as the difference.
This was a free pass for Aston Villa as they weren't expected to win and could therefore express themselves. Paul Lambert's charges really rose to the occasion and took the reigning champions all the way.
But City shut down Villa's primary threat in Christian Benteke and subsequently stunted their attack on the whole. Let's take a look at how this game was won.
Both sides set up in an in-vogue 4-2-3-1 formation, using a solid holding midfield pivot and a lone striker.
Manchester City's width was almost exclusively provided by their full-backs, while Villa committed two players to each touchline in an effort to make space for crosses.
A Full-Back's Hard Night
Pablo Zabaleta is very reliable player, and in almost every game he plays his performances are dominant, proficient and consistent.
Tonight was the rare occasion that he didn't look comfortable at all (making the commentator's praise for him a little odd), as Joe Bennett and Gabby Agbonlahor relentlessly attacked him all game long.
Villa's plan was to win the wide battle and swing crosses into man-mountain Benteke from there, with the Belgian certain to win at least one in every three.
On the other side, Gael Clichy really struggled until the introduction of Edin Dzeko, as the Bosnian's presence forced Matthew Lowton to be more cautious when marauding forward.
Kolo Toure vs. Christian Benteke
Villa aren't quite a one-man team, but they're edging ever closer to it. Benteke is the main man at Villa Park and the claret and blue attack flows directly through him. No player has been able to match up to him one-on-one and stop him...until now.
Enter Kolo Toure, who was probably the Man of the Match in this game despite the Carlos Tevez goal. He man-marked Benteke, got close to him, got physical and read the passes into him superbly.
Villa would frequently look to play it into the 22-year-old's feet in City's half, and Toure nipped in front of his counterpart several times to win turnovers in possession.
With Benteke either unable to receive the ball or under severe pressure when he did, his passing went from iffy to wayward.
City really struggled to get going and this goes down as an ugly win, but when they did put Villa under periods of pressure it was largely down to Edin Dzeko's good movement.
He pulled across the line and probed both the left and right channels, holding the ball up well and allowing the deeper Yaya Toure and Co. to catch up and assert their control.
Villa looked confident in possession, but City were streets ahead. At times, it looked like Lambert's men were chasing shadows, as the Citizens' intricate movement pulled them apart.
We saw more of Yaya in offensive areas, and he hit the post after making space for himself. He also dominated his one-on-one matchups in midfield.
A microcosm of Villa's season? Perhaps, but mistakes are punished, and Ciaran Clark's grievous error gifted Roberto Mancini's men three points when Villa could have held on for a much-needed share of the spoils.
If you stop Benteke, you stop Aston Villa. It's easy on paper, but in reality the Belgian has played 38 games for Villa and Kolo is the only man to have managed it.
This shouldn't worry Villa too much—as stated, it was a free pass and they really gave it a go—but they could do with finding some cutting-edge players elsewhere on the field.
For City, this job is done, and it's time to move onto the next one and hope United slip.
Like the new article format? Send us feedback!