Manchester City 3-1 Aston Villa
Thursday 26 December 2002
While the turn of the year 2003 would bring new optimism, it would also mark the end of an era with the Club set to move to a new home in the City of Manchester Stadium.
The run up to our final season at Maine Road had seen Kevin Keegan's men grace our beloved home turf with some of the most glorious football ever seen in sky blue, as City earned promotion back to the promised land of the Premiership in such scintillating style.
As the clock ticked down to our final game in M14, the City faithful were savouring every second, lapping up every memory - made all the more enjoyable with the entertainment on show.
Keegan's side had forged a mixed but solid start to life back in the top-flight and an upturn in fortunes from late October, which included an unforgettable final Maine Road Manchester Derby triumph, had impressed.
When Aston Villa visited on Boxing Day 2002, there were suggestions City could mount a challenge for a top-six spot! Whatever would unfold, the faithful fans, who had endured so much in the previous decade, were just enjoying the ride!
At the heart of the our blue band were midfield maestros Ali Benarbia and Eyal Berkovic - and the Algerian magician produced a superb cameo display to turn the game in City's favour, delighting the home crowd with his fabulous flourish, flair and finesse.
Introduced from the bench on 64 minutes with the game tied at one apiece, 'Ali B' made an instant impact.
Marc-Vivien Foe had broken the deadlock on the quarter-hour with an excellent first-time finish, drilling Shaun Goater's lay-off into the far corner, before Villa (featuring a certain Gareth Barry) levelled through Dion Dublin when the home side failed to clear.
Just after the hour, pressing for a winner, Keegan sent on Benarbia and within four minutes, the mercurial midfielder had struck the woodwork with a great effort from range.
Ten minutes later, he would bag the crucial goal to claim the points. Although definitely more renowned for his fantastic footwork than his aerial ability, he powered home a diving header from Nicolas Anelka's clipped cross to restore our lead.
Weaving more magic, Benarbia then turned provider, chipping a delicious ball over the Villa defence into Foe's path - and the Cameroon international netted his fifth goal in four games, taking a touch to take the ball away from Peter Enckelman before sliding the ball into the back of the net to secure a memorable win.
City moved up to 11th place with 27 points from 20 matches.
Shaun Goater, who had scored his 100th City goal in the Derby win over United in the November, to this day cannot speak highly enough of Benarbia.
“Each season, we invested in a better quality player, moving up to Eyal Berkovic and Ali Benarbia,” he told ManCity.com
“Ali became my Kevin Horlock because he could do it with both feet.
“When he came before a game, I used to say: 'Ali, do you need anything? You need a cup of tea? Any sugar?' because he was such a quality player and I relied on his quality to be able to find me.
“I say today: he is the player that could play in today’s City team. He was that good a player.”
Reflecting on Ali's 'super sub' display against Villa, Keegan explained at the time: “Before Benarbia went on, I asked him to give me a bit of magic.
“He can play in the Premiership but I think he had to prove it to himself.
“He had a very long lay-off this summer and when he came back, he never got back to the same level of influence in training and games.”
Well, he certainly rekindled his best form that night to vanquish the Villans...
Come May 2003, we would finish ninth and in 'Typical City' fashion, lose our last game at Maine Road.
With another brace in a 3-0 victory over Sunderland, Foe would score our final goal at our iconic stadium.
In summer, we moved across town to the City of Manchester Stadium - now the Etihad Stadium of course - and the rest, as they say, is history...