Manchester, United Kingdom: Phil Foden shone in the absence of Erling Haaland and Kevin De Bruyne as the England international’s hat-trick handed Manchester City a thumping 4-1 win over Aston Villa on Wednesday.

The champions responded emphatically to questions over their ability to win the biggest games to move to within one point of leaders Arsenal at the top of the Premier League.

City had not beaten a side in the Premier League’s top five in six attempts this season prior to the visit of fourth-placed Villa to the Etihad.

But Pep Guardiola showed faith in the depth of his squad by leaving Haaland and De Bruyne on the bench for the full 90 minutes ahead of a hectic schedule in their defence of three competitions.

“The schedule is terrible and we have to bring energy. Everybody has to be involved,“ said Guardiola on his decision to leave out Haaland and De Bruyne.

Guardiola has hailed Foden as the best player in the English top-flight this season and the 23-year-old backed up his manager’s words by taking his goal tally for the season to 21.

“Phil, when he plays in a central position, he has a sense of goal,“ added Guardiola.

“He’s a really top class player -- he has a natural talent, a gift.”

City were beaten 1-0 by Villa when the sides met in December, but that was their last defeat as Guardiola’s men are now unbeaten in 24 games.

And Unai Emery conceded the gulf between the sides showed.

“We performed very well in different circumstances (at home to City). Today they showed their power and deserved to win,“ said the Villa boss.

Jeremy Doku was one of those to return to the City side among four changes and the Belgian rewarded his manager with his brightest display in a City shirt for months.

Doku was the creator for the opener as he skipped past Lucas Digne and his cross was swept high past Villa’s stand-in goalkeeper Robin Olsen by Rodri.

Villa’s normal number one Emiliano Martinez was just one of a host of key absences for the visitors.

Top scorer Ollie Watkins was sidelined by injury, while captain John McGinn was suspended.

However, Jhon Duran showed he is an able deputy to Watkins as the Colombian swept home a fine equaliser after exchanging a one-two with Morgan Rogers.

City restored their lead just before half-time to calm the rising tension among the Etihad crowd thanks to Foden’s first of the night.

His free-kick sneaked through a hole in the Villa wall caused by Nicolo Zaniolo jumping out of position to leave Olsen unsighted.

City’s number two ‘keeper Stefan Ortega is enjoying a rare run in the side due to Ederson’s thigh injury.

And the German was needed to make a vital save after the break to deny Villa levelling for a second time through Douglas Luiz.

Foden made the points safe when he swept in Rodri’s pass off the inside of the post.

And he completed his hat-trick in style by blasting into the top corner from outside the box.

Liverpool can retake top spot when they host bottom-of-the-table Sheffield United on Thursday.

But City will be quietly confident of becoming the first side to ever win four consecutive English top-flight titles with the worst of their run-in now cleared.

Guardiola’s men have just one more match against a top-six opponent, away to Tottenham, in their final eight games of the season.

Defeat leaves Villa still just two points above Spurs in the race for a top-four finish, having played a game more.

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