THE champions are stirring. Manchester Cityâ€™s third win in eight days has shaved the distance between them and Chelsea at the top and, more significantly, breathed new conviction into those now closest in the pursuit. Manuel Pellegriniâ€™s team are second having finally generated proper momentum in the title race. The chase is under way.
Where Cityâ€™s successes over Swansea the previous weekend and Bayern Munich in midweek had been rather chaotic, laced with desperation as they sought to kick-start domestic and European challenges, a first win at Southampton in more than a decade ended up seeming convincing. A tight contest eventually gave way as the visitorsâ€™ quality told, even with their side reduced to 10 by Eliaquim Mangalaâ€™s dismissal and, later, to nine when Vincent Kompany hobbled off after tweaking a hamstring.
The captain will be assessed on Monday and Wednesdayâ€™s trip to Sunderland would appear more awkward if that pair are absent, but authority is clearly returning to the sideâ€™s approach. It was at this stage last term that City embarked on a run of 11 wins in 12 unbeaten league games to mount the challenge that would eventually yield a second title in three seasons. As JosÃ© Mourinho has consistently suggested at Chelsea, this yearâ€™s race is far from run.
There was panache to the way the visitors responded to Mangalaâ€™s loss when their lead had suddenly been rendered fragile, the manner in which the substitutes, James Milner and Frank Lampard, combined for the latter to dispatch his sideâ€™s second 10 minutes from time â€“ a precise finish from the edge of the area â€“ a reminder of underlying pedigree.
Retaining the veteran former England midfielder once his loan deal from New York City expires in January is fast becoming a priority. Sergio AgÃ¼ero, on his 100th league appearance for the club, subsequently conjured a glorious assist for GaÃ«l Clichy to belt in a first City goal, as an unlikely right winger, two minutes from time.
That ambition to keep pouring forward even with their number depleted gave the scoreline gloss that was rather harsh on Southampton, but left the whole occasion feeling like a statement of the championsâ€™ intent. Visiting teams tend not to run riot at St Maryâ€™s these days. There is normally too much class to Ronald Koemanâ€™s team for them to be overrun and overwhelmed, too much poise in their play and pace in their approach to be humiliated, and few other sides will hope to register a victory this eye-catching on the south coast.
The hosts were undoubtedly hampered by Morgan Schneiderlinâ€™s departure with a thigh injury at the interval, not least because the Frenchmanâ€™s absence thrust the sideâ€™s best defender, Toby Alderweireld, into a midfield brief. They never really recovered from the reshuffle, their shield in the centre breached and bypassed. Koemanâ€™s team have their own daunting schedule ahead, with two games against Manchester United plus Arsenal, Chelsea and Everton to come before mid-January. Theirs has now become a test of recovery before Wednesdayâ€™s game at the Emirates, with improvement required.
â€œMorgan is always a big influence on our game and we donâ€™t have the squad like City to change things,â€ said the home manager. â€œBut if you make these kind of mistakes â€¦ It was not good enough today. Maybe two or three of my players reached the level they can [normally] show. We were punished for that.â€
They had been provided with an early escape when AgÃ¼ero wriggled into the area and poked the ball beyond JosÃ© Fonte, whose sliding challenge was mistimed and floored the Argentinian. The referee was perfectly positioned to witness the foul, which made his decision to flash a yellow for a dive all the more mystifying. Alderweireld had done well to improvise a block from Stevan Joveticâ€™s attempt just after the half-hour, but the home side never really came closer to scoring than in a pinball midway through the opening period when Joe Hart denied Graziano PellÃ¨â€™s tentative prod and Steven Davisâ€™ more threatening follow-up. Thereafter their sights of goal were more often snatched glimpses from distance.
City, in contrast, were increasingly menacing with Schneiderlin retired. Their opener had been forged by slick approach play around the edge of the Southampton penalty area, home players passing up opportunities to clear their lines before AgÃ¼ero glided into space and on to Fernandinhoâ€™s pass, glanced up, and picked out Yaya TourÃ©. The Ivorian was allowed to charge unhindered on to the strikerâ€™s delivery to dispatch a low drive which flicked off a home player to skim beyond Fraser Forster and in.
They appeared untroubled thereafter, Milner and Lampard busily shoring up midfield and JesÃºs Navas and AgÃ¼ero passing up opportunities to extend the lead, before Shane Long pounced on TourÃ©â€™s indecision to steal possession and dart towards goal. Mangala felled the forward just outside the box and the Frenchman was booked and dismissed, having earlier been cautioned for tripping Dusan Tadic.
â€œI thought Mangala played very well today,â€ said Pellegrini. â€œIt was not him who lost the ball, so it was unnecessary. Remember, Southampton have important strikers and they had just one chance against our goalkeeper.â€ That was a reflection of the visitorsâ€™ underlying dominance. Southampton need not be deflated given the gulf in resources between the sides, but this was the natural order reimposing itself near the top. Cityâ€™s pursuit is on.
Man of the match Sergio AgÃ¼ero (Manchester City) – The Guardian