Carlos Tevez scored just before half-time as Manchester City won 1-0 at struggling Aston Villa in the Premier League.
Tevez, starting as a lone striker after Sergio Aguero picked up a knee injury in match-day training, capitalised on a terrible mistake from Ciaran Clark to roll home his ninth league goal of the season.
That came at the end of the visitors’ best spell; for much of the match they toiled somewhat.
A better side would have punished them as, for all their exuberant running, Villa’s inexperienced side lacked the quality or composure to truly test Joe Hart, although they could have been awarded a late penalty when Christian Benteke appeared to be tripped by Matija Nastasic.
The result cuts Manchester United’s lead over second-placed City to 12 points, while Villa stay in the relegation zone on goal difference behind Wigan Athletic.
Villa started surprisingly well as they took the game to a City side who struggled to get past halfway at times.
Andreas Weimann was inches away from converting one of several good crosses by Joe Bennett, while Tevez showed good discipline to stay on his post with a vital goal-line clearance as Benteke powered a header on target.
But, midway through the half, City regained their composure, possibly aided by yet another injury to Jack Rodwell.
Rodwell had played fairly well in his cameo, carving out City’s only chance in the first quarter of the match with a fine drive that Brad Guzan tipped behind.
But the England midfielder’s exit allowed Edin Dzeko to support the previously isolated Tevez, Yaya Toure able to drop deeper and exert greater control over the tempo of the game.
From that point the midfield battle was won by the visitors, as Toure dominated his inexperienced opposition.
Chances came and went for Pablo Zabaleta, who rattled the inside of the post with a vicious drive, and James Milner, who almost caught Villa napping with a short corner routine.
With the possession stats tipping the scales at 66 per cent, City deserved their lead, although it came after another bout of defensive self-harming by Villa.
Clark had time to clear his lines after picking up a loose ball, but he seemed intent to pick out a Hollywood pass for one of his strikers, who did not move quickly enough.
But instead of releasing the ball upfield, the English-born Ireland defender dithered painfully and was caught in possession by Dzeko, who rolled the ball unselfishly to Tevez, who rounded Guzan and finished with ease.
It was typical of Villa’s season, as Paul Lambert’s insistence on trusting youth continues to come unstuck, not on account of age but a lack of composure and technical ability.
The second half did see Villa take the fight to City, but a lack of passing ability meant most of their dangerous attacks came from wide positions or set pieces.
They did threaten, with Bennett’s crossing particularly good and Benteke the usual aerial handful, but Nastasic and Kolo Toure were fantastic in central defence, leaving Hart with few touches of the ball and no saves of note.
The most the England keeper had to do was launch into a dive after Matthew Lowton hit a rasping shot on the run – but it went a yard wide as Hart pulled his arms away.
City had a second ruled out for offside, Dzeko a yard past the play when Yaya Toure unleashed a drive that came back to the Bosnian off the woodwork, while Javi Garcia twice volleyed off target from corners.
But they were rare forays forward as Villa pumped the ball into the City box, although there was no real danger other than an incident with three minutes left that saw Benteke go down under pressure from Nastasic.
Teams at the bottom rarely get the rub of the green and once more Villa’s appeals were rejected as City hung on for the three points, although rivals United appear to have already run away with the title.
MAN OF THE MATCH
Matija Nastasic (Manchester City) – Along with Kolo Toure the young defender hardly put a foot wrong as he continued to show maturity beyond his years.
Aston Villa: Guzan 7, Lowton 6, Clark 4, Baker 7, Bennett 7, Westwood 5, Delph 5, N’Zogbia 6, Agbonlahor 6, Weimann 6, Benteke 6; Subs: Holman 6, Dawkins N/A, El Ahmadi 6.
Manchester City: Hart 6, Zabaleta 6, Kolo Toure 8, Nastasic 8, Clichy 7, Garcia 6, Milner 7, Rodwell N/A, Silva 7, Yaya Toure 7, Tevez 7; Subs: Nasri N/A, Barry N/A, Dzeko 7.