PEP GUARDIOLA had spoken with such conviction about his belief that Manchester City would win a fourth consecutive title that you knew he must have been worried.
On a night when Aston Villa gave his side a fearsome beating, not reflected in the scoreline, those fears were laid bare.
City are fourth in the table now, behind Unai Emery’s magnificent Villa, and six points adrift of leaders Arsenal after a fourth league game without a win.
Leon Bailey’s deflected second-half strike was enough to defeat City but an overall shot count of 22-3 was more indicative of Villa’s dominance.
It was Villa’s 14th straight home league win – equally a record for a club which was winning titles in the 19th century.
It was also Emery’s first success over Guardiola in 14 attempts – and it was richly deserved.
Had Harry Redknapp been in charge of City, he would have claimed this side were “down to the bare bones”.
That’s never quite the case at such a wealthy club, but without Rodri, Jack Grealish, Jeremy Doku and long-term absentee Kevin De Bruyne, City were a shadow of their Treble-winning selves – second-best in every department.
Guardiola’s uncharacteristically bullish prediction of another Premier League crown sounded like a man who felt the need to instil belief into a squad which has rarely lacked confidence.
Rodri, so critical as Guardiola’s midfield anchor man, has now missed four domestic matches through suspension this season and City have lost all four.
Still, let’s stick away our violins for City and praise Emery’s Villa, who played with the tempo and talent to play the best team in the world off the park.
Emery has electrified this place since taking over 13 months ago. Always one of English football’s great stately homes, Villa Park is now pulsing with noise and passion.
With this stadium impregnable and City’s midfield unrecognisable, this was one of those extremely rare occasions when you turned up to watch Guardiola’s side and didn’t expect them to win.
With Rodri banned, specialist defender Rico Lewis started in the centre – as it became increasingly obvious that England midfielder Kalvin Phillips is never going to crack it at the Etihad.
Either out of respect for Villa or through necessity, Guardiola fielded a back five, with John Stones and Manuel Akanji both stepping into midfield when City were in possession.
Villa started like the clappers – Lucas Digne drilling into the side-netting before Ederson foiled Bailey at his near post, then Pau Torres with a clawing, full-stretch effort.
Where there’s Haaland, though, there is hope and the Norwegian twice forced saves from Emi Martinez in quick succession, first with a stinging shot, then with a header from a Bernardo Silva centre.
Stones, who may be the Barnsley Beckenbauer, tripped himself up attempting a Cruyff turn in the Villa box.
With Lewis too easily outmuscled, Villa were bossing midfield and pepper-spraying the City goal.
Skipper John McGinn was unplayable at times and Stones was booked for a tactical foul on the Scot as John Brooks
McGinn slipped a pass to send Ollie Watkins through, but Ederson advanced to save and then Douglas Luiz rose to head into the net, only for a flag to go up as the ball gone out before Digne had crossed it.
It had been an outstanding first half from Emery’s men in everything except for the scoreline – Villa Park roared them off at the whistle but plenty were wondering whether they might pay for failing to capitalise on their dominance.
While those Sky pundits had accused City of complacency, this looked more like a team too battered by absences to function properly.
Despite their Abu Dhabi billions, Guardiola prefers a relatively small squad – and seems to have an aversion to signing any actual left-backs, but here was the flip side to not bulking out your playing staff.
Watkins was booked for flailing a hand at Akanji, who responded as if Carlos the Jackal had caught him in his crosshairs from the Holte End
When City were caught with their pants down playing out from the back, Bailey fed McGinn, who twisted inside Ruben Dias but shot narrowly wide.
The volume on the Villa Park amp was being cranked up to eleven, with City seemingly there for the taking.
Every attacking pass was roared, every corner met with fist-pumps but Ederson’s goal remained intact.
Guardiola sent on Mateo Kovacic and Matheus Nunes in a bid to bolster a midfield which had been in danger of subsiding. They were quickly followed by Norwegian youngster Oscar Bobb.
At the point, the shot count read 16-2 in Villa – a stat it is difficult to imagine a Guardiola team ever being on the wrong end of.
Emery had never been involved in a goalless draw in 91 previous Premier League matches in charge of Arsenal and Villa – and that run was not going to end here.
In the 74th minute, Bailey picked up the ball on the halfway line, advanced past the struggling Josko Gvardiol, then did the Croatian again before his shot took a deflection off Dias and flew over Ederson.
Villa refused to sit back and Luiz curled a shot against the post late on