Visitors' defence ripped to shreds
Manchester City comprehensively beat Aston Villa to tentatively go to the top of the Premier League.Mario Balotelli scored the opener from the spot, while Lescott doubled the lead with a controversial goal. The young Italian forward sent home the third to put the game beyond all doubt. And as if to emphasise on the magnitude of the victory, the former Inter hitman scored again from the spot to complete his hat-trick.
City boss Roberto Mancini was expected to recall Kolo Toure back into the starting line-up, as the defender had finished serving his suspension. But instead Lescott continued in the centre-half position as the Ivorian did not even make the squad. Emmanuel Adebayor and Wayne Bridge were doubts due to groin and hamstring injuries respectively, but the latter returned to claim a spot on the bench.
Gerard Houllier was handed a boost in the hour of need as skipper Stiliyan Petrov returned to the starting line-up. But Ashley and Luke Young remained sidelined with knee and groin injuries respectively. Emile Heskey had hobbled off - owing to a twisted ankle - during the previous encounter against Tottenham Hotspur, and was unable to make it in time for this game.
The hosts began the game with an early spell of possession as Villa were content to press during the initial stages. But all this changed when striker Balotelli was taken down by defender Eric Lichaj. The referee had promptly pointed to the spot, and the Italian stepped up to do the honours. And the Italian coolly struck the ball into the bottom right corner, as the 'keeper went the wrong way. It was an intelligently taken spot-kick by the youngster, as he paused for a fraction of a second to allow goalkeeper Brad Friedel to commit to one direction as he fired the ball to the other corner.
Five minutes after the opener, City were looking to exploit play through a corner. And Adam Johnson sent in a cross that was met with a glancing header from Lescott, and Barry Bannan cleared the danger using his head. However, the linesman had a good view of the situation and instantly indicated that the ball had crossed the line. But zonal marking from Houllier's men was the real cause behind the damage, as the scorer should not have been allowed to take such a header.
The visitors had a pushed forward and one occasion earned a free-kick within striking range. But Stewart Downing blasted it high and wide, which in some ways showcased how the travellers had played until that point.
Less than a third of the game had gone when Mancini's men struck once more. David Silva managed to cut in from the left, played a little one-two, and fired a left-footed shot towards goal. But Friedel was on hand to make a save. But the rebound fell to the feet of Balotelli, who only had to tap the ball in from close range. And having gone three goals up, the Premier League summit was already in sight for the home side.
With only a few minutes left in the first-half, Marc Albrighton decided to put 'keeper Joe Hart to the test. And despite the shot-stopper making a decent save, the rebound appeared to be threatening as it was close to the attacker. But Lescott came just in time to diffuse the danger.
The story was much the same in the second period as City looked like scoring at every given opportunity. And in one such attack, Johnson was dancing past the visitors' defence when a trailing foot from Albrighton caused the midfielder to trip and go down. The man in charge stopped the game as he had no choice but to point to the spot. Balotelli stepped up, and performed a similar routine as his first goal to score his first hat-trick for City.
Hat-trick hero | Balotelli nets three as City tentatively went to the top
Silva was brought off as ex-Villa midfielder James Milner came on, while a few minutes later Jo replaced Yaya Toure. Houllier brought on Fabian Delph and Nathan Delfouenso in place of Albrighton and Bannan.
Despite the game appearing to be well and truly past them, Villa continued to plug away in search of a consolatory goal. But try as they might, the hosts' defences remain generally solid throughout.
Substitutes Delph and Milner were involved in a challenge that saw the visitors' player come off worse, and he spent a little time on the ground before picking himself back up to contribute to the cause.
The travellers were finally beginning to impose themselves on the game just a little bit, but with less than 15 minutes left on the clock it was all a little too late. But they continued to push forward anyway, as Delph let one loose from range. But Hart was on hand to put the ball away for a corner. At this point, the away fans showcased some humour as they roared in cheer as their side got a corner.
Lichaj had a go late on, but the England goalkeeper was again on hand to prevent the opposition from scoring.
And as the referee brought the game to a close, Villa's lacklustre away form continued as City rose above their arch-rivals Manchester United to go to the top of the Premier League.