Hadn’t we been here before – predictions of a ‘nailed on’ City win, opponents out of their depth, a goalfest for the men in sky blue?
Just 98 days on from that incredible win against QPR with the Premier League title on the line, and here we were with Manchester City’s version of Groundhog Day against newly promoted, unfancied Southampton.
The feeling of déjà vu was further perpetuated by the chronology of events with one glaring hiccup – the hero of the piece last time out became the focus of grave concern as Sergio Aguero was stretchered away.
As Mancini’s champions set about Nigel Adkin’s Premier League novices who could have foreseen the drama that would have neutrals engrossed, Saints fans getting giddy and the home support chewing nigh non-existent fingernails.
The clouds gathered both overhead and in the hearts of City fans when Aguero fell foul to a bad twist of his right knee. The mood darkened further when the usually mercurial David Silva nudged an insipid penalty into the prone midriff of Saints’ keeper Kelvin Davis.
It was left to a super-sleek, indefatigable Carlos Tevez to restore an air of normality at the Etihad when he sprang Southampton’s offside trap by the thinnest of margins in the 40thminute. He latched onto Samir Nasri’s well weighted pass and rammed home a low shot past a despairing Davis.
At the break City were good value for their 1-0 advantage despite a sluggish first 45 minutes. Jack Rodwell’s surprise debut was going well as he put in a solid, if unspectacular shift.
The Blues then ratcheted up their attacking play with Dzeko failing to react to a pass after a mesmerizing dribble by Nasri. Silva hit the bar when it seemed easier to score and Clichy skewed a left foot volley over the bar from close range.
Surely it was only a matter of time before the goals flowed. Sure enough they did with two in nine minutes…but at the other end of the pitch leaving England’s No 1 goalkeeper Joe Hart, helpless.
As substitutions go Nigel Adkins is well schooled in the art, as Southampton’s second half replacements, Rickie Lambert and Steven Davis, made City pay for uncharacteristically sloppy defending.
Lambert drilled the first low into the left hand corner after the ball had pinged around the City 18 yard box in a melee of legs. Davis smashed a drive into the same spot in the 68th minute after a misplaced pass by new boy Rodwell inadvertently unleashed a swift Saints counter attack from their own 18 yard box.
This wasn’t supposed to happen. Hadn’t the PL novices read the script?
It was time for Super Mario as City stuttered. The usually sublime Silva had had a stinker by his standards and off came the World Cup and double Euro winner.
Within seconds City were on terms. A Kompany shot deflected off Yaya into Dzeko’s path and the big Bosnian smashed it home. City were finally back in the ascendancy, confirmed ten minutes from time when Nasri capped his man of the match showing, slamming a screamer into the roof of the net from 15 yards out.
Punch drunk but refusing to hit the canvas, the Saints marched forward, pinning City back trying to prise a third goal past a strangely disjointed defensive corps.
But, like true champions City hung on and did what champions do – win without being at their best – a revered trait over the years of their loathed neighbours from Salford.
If the win over QPR gave City the title and self belief, the win over Southampton showed a never-say-die mentality that will serve City well in the weeks and months that lie ahead.
Whether Sergio Aguero will be an integral part of City’s defence of the title is still to be determined by medical scans on his damaged right knee. There are grounds for optimism but that won’t stop City being very active in the last few days of the transfer market.
Rumours of Daniele De Rossi, Scott Sinclair, Daniel Agger and Fiorentina’s Stevan Jovetic abound and Mancini desperately wants to boost the depth of his squad before QPR come to town on 1 September.