FA CUP,England,3-2011:Manchester City are just a win over Reading away from their first FA Cup semi-final since 1981 after beating Aston Villa.
Gerard Houllier must bear the brunt of the Villa fans’ ire after making eight changes to his latest Premier League starting line-up for a game against talented but tired opponents, with lower-league opposition the prize for victory.
None of this will bother City fans, who can once again think about ending 35 years without a trophy thanks to a fourth-minute opener from Yaya Toure and splendid efforts from Mario Balotelli and David Silva.
As City manager Roberto Mancini has been talking about how fatigued his players are at present, Houllier’s team selection raised more than an eyebrow.
Showing improved form of late and inching clear of the relegation mire, the midlands outfit were expected to take the fight to their opponents.
Instead, Houllier made eight changes and left Ashley Young, Stewart Downing and Marc Albrighton on the bench, offering City a glimmer of hope their talent did not require.
When the two sides met in league combat on this ground in December, the Blues made a flying start. So they did again.
Villa were unfortunate in the sense Patrick Vieira’s fourth-minute header struck Ciaran Clark after Aleksandar Kolarov had swung in a corner. The bounce fell perfectly for Toure, who duly smashed home from three yards.
Villa did rally, with Gabriel Agbonlahor going close, but suddenly the energy that appeared sapped from City legs at the weekend returned.
Balotelli could not exactly be described as enthusiastic. Economy of effort seems to be the Italian’s mantra.
However, the 20-year-old is a supreme talent and his superb reading of Toure’s through-ball allowed him to streak clear of the Villa defence after 25 minutes.
Confidence is not a problem for the former Inter Milan star either, judging by the nonchalant manner in which he lifted a shot into the roof of the net with Brad Friedel powerless to stop it.
It was the striker’s 10th goal in 18 eventful games for the Blues and Mancini must have felt fully vindicated in his decision to leave both Carlos Tevez and Edin Dzeko on the bench.
What must have been worrying though was the sight of Balotelli ruefully rubbing his right knee, which carried on for the remainder of the half, given he has already been sidelined for extended periods twice this season with a problem in the same area.
After a suitable period for dramatic effect, Balotelli emerged for the second half.
He hung around for a further 15 minutes, during which time he took on the unaccustomed role of peacemaker in a feud between Toure and former City skipper Richard Dunne and also, completely needlessly, swiped an arm into Herd’s face to pick up a yellow card.
Balotelli can be accused of many things. Being dull is not among them.
The same could also be said of Silva, who has even eclipsed Tevez as City’s outstanding performer this season.
And when Clark made the fatal mistake of nodding Pablo Zabaleta’s cross into the Spaniard’s path, the result, a blistering shot into the bottom corner, was entirely predictable.
Beaten and bruised, there seemed no obvious reason for Houllier to go through with his plan to introduce Young and Downing when the possibility of injury was the only thing on offer.
The Frenchman must have taken a sharp intake of breath when Young limped away from one challenge too, although the England man was able to continue.
City were in command though.
Tevez thundered a shot into Friedel’s chest after Kolarov had fired wide from long-range, then the Argentina star was thwarted by the American once more as his fruitless hunt for a goal continued.
Having started to abandon thoughts of victory from the moment they became aware of Houllier’s team, the Villa fans amused themselves with an impromptu game of headers with the ball Young used to fire a free-kick over the bar.
City were already looking ahead to Reading’s arrival on March 13.