Manchester City’s return to winning ways was particularly welcome for Manuel Pellegrini. Not enough to banish talk of Pep Guardiola and Lionel Messi but a decent response to last weekend’s 4-1 drubbing against Liverpool, even if stand-in goalkeeper Willie Caballero was still busy.
Pellegrini is going through a phase of step forward, one step back at the moment. He welcomed back David Silva as a late substitute after two months out but also saw Sergio Aguero hobble off after landing awkwardly. With Joe Hart and Vincent Kompany already sidelined, any kind of lay-off for Aguero is the last thing his manager needs.
‘It was a very important reaction’ said Pellegrini, whose side had picked up one league point in two matches and were beaten by Juventus in the Champions League on Wednesday night. ‘The game against Liverpool wasn’t normal for us. We knew if we wanted to be involved in the title race, we couldn’t drop more points at home. The start of the game was so important for us to show it.’
Indeed, City’s opening was blistering, as it had been in their 3-1 win in Seville earlier this season. Raheem Sterling and Aleksandr Kolarov had already been denied by Maarten Stekelenburg when Sterling robbed Maya Yoshida and sprinted to the byline before cutting back for De Bruyne to net his seventh goal in 16 games for City. Yoshida’s blunder was particularly embarrassing for Koeman who had selected the Japanese player ahead of his regular right-back Cedric Soares, perhaps with Wednesday’s Capital One Cup quarter-final against Liverpool in mind. Not that Koeman was taking responsibility.
‘It wasn’t a question of tactics or line-up. If you make a mistake like that against Sterling, he will punish you.’
Southampton got away with a handball by Steven Davis from Fernandinho’s header, but only temporarily. From the resulting 20th minute corner, Delph’s shot from the edge of the box deflected off Virgil van Dijk and in for 2-0. Van Dijk hit the crossbar and Shane Long forced Caballero into his first serious save but the general consensus was that Southampton were lucky to be only 2-0 down at the interval. But such was City’s fragile state of mind that once Long powered in a header from Sadio Mane’s cross after 50 minutes, you felt they might throw it all away.
‘I felt the players were a bit nervous,’ conceded Pellegrini.
It looked like it as Tadic ran through and was denied by the outstretched left hand of Caballero as he tried to lift a finish. The ‘keeper then stopped the follow-up by Long. Southampton players also claimed for a penalty for a handball against Fernandinho. ‘The referee made some strange decisions,’ said Koeman, without getting drawn specifically on that one. Aguero went off soon afterwards. Pellegrini said it had always been his intention to withdraw the striker after 65 minutes, but he was wincing in pain after appearing to land awkwardly on his ankle following an aerial challenge with Long. The City manager added to the confusion by saying Aguero had felt pain in his heel after getting a kick in the incident.
What was clear was how badly City needed a third goal. It did arrive after 79 minutes and was well-planned and executed. After a series of quick passes, De Bruyne took his time to pick out Kolarov at the far post, and the left-back smashing an angled drive into Stekelenberg’s bottom corner. The relief was evident and Silva got a huge ovation when he came on to add some late stardust. Wins like this are the bare minimum if Pellegrini is to put any kind of fight to stop the Guardiola bandwagon.
‘I repeat maybe we didn’t have a good week but we are continuing at the top of the table, are the only English team qualified for the Champions League and are also in the Capital One Cup quarter-final,’ he said, glass half-full.
Never mind Messi, he will hope at least one of Hart, Kompany and Aguero for the Saturday lunchtime game at Stoke for the next instalment of what promises to be a very close title race.