Darren Bent enjoyed a dream debut as his first-half strike gave Aston Villa a deserved 1-0 victory over Manchester City and deal Roberto Mancini's men a major Premier League title blow today. Bent, who arrived from Sunderland in midweek, struck just 17 minutes into his Villa bow when he displayed the predatory instincts which persuaded Gerard Houllier to pay £24m for his services.
It was no more than Villa deserved for a fine performance in front of the Villa Park crowd as they moved three points clear of the relegation zone. However, it was a disastrous end to the day for City's £27m signing Edin Dzeko after he wasted a glorious chance late on as Mancini's team remained third, three points behind leaders Manchester United having played two more games.
There was no place in Mancini's team for James Milner on his return to Villa Park, with the England midfielder having to settle for a place on the bench. Villa had the first chance of the game five minutes in when Ashley Young's free-kick was headed over the crossbar by former City defender Richard Dunne under pressure from Jerome Boateng.
City left-back Aleksandar Kolarov saw a free-kick curl over the bar, while Carlos Tevez was guilty of an uncharacteristic miss when he failed to connect with a dangerous Kolarov corner which flashed across the six-yard box. And City soon paid the price when Bent put Villa ahead, tapping in from close range after Joe Hart failed to push Ashley Young's low curling shot to safety.
Fantastic Friedel, determined defence
The home side had Brad Friedel to thank soon afterwards, though, when the veteran American goalkeeper made a superb reaction save to turn a Vincent Kompany header over the crossbar. Former Villa star Gareth Barry was a whisker away from levelling eight minutes before the break with a fine header from Boateng's cross which crept inches past the far post.
Tevez and Dzeko both had shots charged down as the Villa defence bravely withstood a spell of sustained City pressure. Bosnian Dzeko headed a golden chance over the bar just seconds later as City began to turn the screw on the struggling Midlanders.
Mancini attempted to revive his team's fortunes by introducing Adam Johnson as a 57th-minute sub for Barry, who was waved off to ironic cheers from the Villa fans. Dunne and James Collins kept Tevez and Dzeko on a leash with the Welshman making a number of stunning last-ditch blocks to protect Friedel's goal.
Friedel will become Villa's oldest ever player on 1 February but age showed no signs of catching up with the 39-year-old when he brilliantly blocked a Boateng piledriver. At the other end, Young, back from suspension, was in excellent form and he saw a brilliant low drive saved by Hart - the England keeper this time managing to turn the ball around the post.
Villa's goal led a charmed existence in the latter stages as Dzeko headed a gilt-edged chance wide and a De Jong drive deflected through Ciaran Clark's legs and onto the left post but the home side hung on for a much-needed victory.