Perhaps it only took the small matter of 115 Premier League charges, the prospect of expulsion from the division and being stripped of some of their titles for Pep Guardiola to pick something resembling his strongest side.
After a remarkable week, an unprecedented charge sheet and an extraordinary press conference performance from Guardiola came something more familiar: a rampant, dominant display from Manchester City. Guardiola had insisted their titles could not be taken from them and his side moved closer to a fifth Premier League crown under the Spaniard and a seventh in 12 seasons. Aston Villa were demolished before half-time. City are now only three points behind Arsenal and, with a superior goal difference, could leapfrog them at the top of the table with victory at the Emirates Stadium on Wednesday.
Maybe off-field issues concentrated the mind for Guardiola. City had been weakened by managerial choice of late. With Kevin De Bruyne, Ilkay Gundogan, Aymeric Laporte and Ruben Dias recalled, they overwhelmed a side who had won their three previous away games. Strangely benched at Tottenham, De Bruyne was terrific. Gundogan played with a blend of class and purpose. City looked all the better for their return. Guardiola stopped playing games with his own side and City powered to victory, courtesy of an emphatic start.
As the manager had pointed out on Friday, City’s titles were won on the pitch – though questions surround the finances that allowed them to build such formidable sides – and, as they threatened to secure another, this could be portrayed as a defiant response to the Premier League or a reaction to their own timid display at Tottenham.
The Etihad was louder than usual, with the Premier League anthem booed. There was a chorus of Guardiola’s name before kick-off and Sheikh Mansour’s shortly after. There were salutes to Roberto Mancini, the title-winning manager whose two contracts form the basis of part of the case against City. A newly-commissioned banner celebrated Lord Pannick, their infamously expensive lawyer.
Then their famously expensive players set to work. The opener came from a combination of a duo who were both priced at around £60m. For Unai Emery, who has never beaten Guardiola, it swiftly became apparent it would be a case of 13th time unlucky for the Aston Villa manager.
Culpable for Tottenham’s winner last week, Rodri set about making amends. He darted away from Jacob Ramsey to head in Riyad Mahrez’s corner. As Guardiola demoted Rico Lewis, Rodri brought drive from the base of the midfield. Slow starters too often in 2023, City flew out of the blocks and the Spaniard then provided a defence-splitting pass when Emi Martinez did superbly to save Gundogan’s shot.
The costliest of all, the £100m signing from Villa Jack Grealish twice came close, with a sweetly-struck volley and a curler Martinez tipped wide. On the stroke of half-time, he won a penalty when the former Villa captain was tripped by Ramsey, whose afternoon continued to be troubled. Martinez’s penalty-saving heroics won a World Cup but Mahrez beat him comfortably.
Before then, Villa had the familiar sight of Gundogan celebrating. The German scored a title-winning brace against them on the final day of last season. He retained a scoring habit against them, materialising at the far post to tap in Erling Haaland’s low cross. The instigator of the move, however, was De Bruyne with a raking pass that Calum Chambers headed past Martinez, albeit too wide for the for advancing Haaland to shoot.
The assist was all Haaland had to show for his outing. There was some surprise he did not take the penalty and, if the second half seemed a chance to fill his boots, he instead went off at the break. Instead, as City looked less secure at the back after Dias went off, the striker to find the net was Ollie Watkins, who scored for a third successive game after Bernardo Silva lost the ball.
It was not the prelude to a comeback. Nor, after their lamentable first half, did Villa deserve one. They might have scored a second, when Ederson tipped an audacious effort from Philippe Coutinho over and the substitute Jhon Duran rattled the bar in injury time, but City could have got a fourth goal, through either the replacement Julian Alvarez or Mahrez.
Villa may feel they simply faced City at the wrong time: that the century of charges would motivate them to show why they got a century of points a few years ago. And yet, if the context prompted a rise in the noise levels, the hostility came from the excellence of the players, rather than the feeling in the stands. City’s supporters sang about being champions. “Champions of Europe, you’ll never sing that,” came the retort from the travelling Villans. And while, if severe punishments await City, they may be right, they were songs that may be heard whenever these clubs face off. And so, in its own strange way, it was business as usual.