Manchester City ease back into the groove at Southampton
Gap at the top back to seven points with Pep Guardiola’s side playing Liverpool next
Sergio Aguero scores Manchester City’s third goal against Southampton. Photograph: Catherine Ivill/Getty
Southampton 1 Manchester City 3
The alarm bells shrilled for Manchester City. Almost out of nowhere, they had lost three Premier League games out of four and, with Liverpool flicking on the after-burners, it is no exaggeration to say that another reverse would have imperilled their title defence.
Pep Guardiola and his players could feel a bit better after this. City imposed their front-foot football and, although they wobbled at times during the first half, they had too much for Ralph Hasenhuttl’s rebooted Southampton.
City’s self-belief flooded back during a one-sided second half, during which it was a minor miracle that they did not add to their lead, but the most important aspect was the result. The victory cut Liverpool’s lead at the top of the table to seven points, ahead of Thursday night’s seismic clash between the clubs at the Etihad Stadium. Win that and City would be back in business.
They will have to tighten up on the finer details to do so. Defensively, there were flaws before the interval and it is doubtful whether Liverpool will afford them as many chances as Southampton did. City lacked end product on too many occasions.
Nevertheless, the positives far outweighed the negatives, after first-half goals from David Silva and Sergio Agüero, either side of a James Ward-Prowse own goal, gave them an unassailable cushion.
Southampton were second best and their frustrations were summed up by the dreadful Pierre-Emile Højbjerg challenge on Fernandinho in the 85th minute that saw the home captain receive a straight red card. Højbjerg, who had earlier equalised for 1-1, was high and out of control with a scissors-style tackle. Guardiola was incensed and he immediately withdrew Fernandinho, who had made an impressive comeback from a thigh injury.
The City manager had mentioned confidence – or the sudden lack of it – after the Boxing Day defeat at Leicester and what would have pleased him the most was how it returned. The early goal certainly helped and it came when Southampton left great spaces down their left-hand side.
It was too easy for Bernardo Silva to swap passes with Riyad Mahrez, saunter forward and guide a ball back and across with the outside of his left boot, where there was even more space for the late arriving David Silva. When he opened up his body and steered goalwards, everybody knew what would happen next.
City did not have it all their own way and Southampton created a glorious chance to take the lead on nine minutes only for Charlie Austin to waste it. Mohamed Elyounoussi’s clipped first-time throughball was beautifully executed but, confronted by Ederson, Austin took a clumsy touch and the moment was gone. It was an indication that, even with Fernandinho back, City would not be entirely secure in their defensive third.
Guardiola’s side played some lovely one-touch stuff, which even included Ederson. His composure on the ball, when being pressed by red-and-white shirts, was either sub-zero cool or terrifyingly reckless, depending on your viewpoint. The goalkeeper prompted an end-to-end move in the 19th minute, which featured a ball out from Fernandinho and a surging run by Mahrez. His finish was narrowly off-target.
City might have been further in front before they were pegged back during an entertaining first half. Raheem Sterling had outmuscled Jack Stephens at the outset only to be denied by Alex McCarthy while the Southampton goalkeeper blocked from Agüero at point-blank range following Sterling’s low cross.
Southampton were level shortly after Ederson had kept out Austin’s flick header from a corner with a diving one-handed save. Oleksandr Zinchenko was the City villain, turning into trouble and Højbjerg, and it was an excellent finish from him. He drove into the area, shifted the ball smartly onto his right foot and sent his shot rising inside the near corner.
Southampton had their tails up and they shouted loudly for a penalty when Ward-Prowse took a raking crossfield ball and had the run on Zinchenko inside the area. There was a little contact and down he went but it did not feel sufficient for the kick to be awarded.
City salted the wound almost immediately and it was another hard-luck story for Ward-Prowse. Sterling darted into space inside the area and when he crossed, the ball deflected wickedly off Ward-Prowse and flew inside the near corner of the net.
City took a bigger lead into the interval, which their football deserved, when Zinchenko crossed and Jan Bednarek lost Agüero – the footballing equivalent of hari-kari. Agüero headed down and the ball squirmed underneath McCarthy. It was a moment of redemption for Zinchenko.
The one-two punch deflated Southampton and City eased to the win. The home team had looked jaded in the defeat to West Ham here on Thursday night and they chased shadows in the second-half. The speed and slickness of some of City’s give-and-goes was too much for them.
The chances came and the chances went in the second-half. Sterling was denied in a one-on-one by McCarthy; Aguero spun and curled against the woodwork; Sterling was denied a penalty (correctly) after a challenge from the substitute, Yan Valery and Mahrez blew another one-on-one with McCarthy. Bring on Liverpool. – Guardian service