Saturday lunchtime at the Etihad and Manchester City and Southampton served a familiar dish from the menu of football clichés in that, it is indeed ‘a funny old game’.
City cooked up a winning recipe as they stayed on course for the Premier League title with a delicious 4-1 outcome, but it was an encounter packed with diverse flavourings and one that served to confuse the palate.
The three-goal margin suggests City polished off the opposition with consummate ease, and yet for much of the first half the visitors threatened their hosts with a nasty bout of indigestion.
Mauricio Pochettino’s team could be forgiven for having a bitter after taste with well founded claims that City’s second goal should have been disallowed.
Southampton’s young Argentine manager rightly remonstrated that assistant referee Mick McDonough was clearly ‘out to lunch’ when David Silva strayed three feet beyond the last defender, before passing to Samir Nasri.
Pochettino was adamant it was the turning point of a close fought match and that his side had been defeated by referee Chris Foy, not Manchester City.
By contrast, City could have flattered to deceive even more had they not been so profligate in front of goal. Edin Dzeko saw a thundering header shave the crossbar, Yaya Toure’s scuffed drive rebounded off a post and out-of-sorts Alvaro Negredo should have bagged a brace.
Add to that Dzeko missed a sitter, to the extent that his intended goal-bound shot went out for a throw-in and Yaya had a solid penalty claim – prior to a pathetic dive in Southampton’s box that saw him booked – and it could so easily have been 8-1.
Suffice to say that City ultimately deserved the spoils for their toil on a day when very little went the way of the Saints.
Southampton’s unfortunate outing was epitomised by a dreadful injury to striker, Jay Rodriquez who, unchallenged, landed awkwardly and inflicted suspected ligament damage to his right knee.
With his World Cup hopes hanging by a thread the England hopeful was stretchered off to a generous ovation from Southampton and City supporters alike.
The match had barely begun when Dzeko accepted the invitation, afforded by Jose Fonte’s ridiculous challenge, to go down in the visitor’s 18-yard box.
Dead ball specialist Yaya stepped up to dispatch the 3rd minute penalty for his 22nd goal of the season, helping quell any early Etihad anxieties.
With rookie keeper Paulo Gazzaniga deputising for Artur Boruc, City should have capitalised on their bright start. They didn’t.
Spurred on by the lively Adam Lallana and the rock-like Rickie Lambert, Southampton dominated possession. They drew level when Lambert maintained his astonishing 100% penalty conversion rate (31/31) for the Saints, powering his spot kick past Joe Hart in the 37th minute.
Pablo Zabaleta made an uncharacteristic error when conceding the penalty, fouling Jack Cork.
A game that had the potential to be a banana skin to City title hopes was proving to be just that…until the stroke of half-time.
A swift passing move involving Yaya, Dzeko and Silva found the sublime Spaniard marooned offside. Merlin – savvy enough to detect the linesman’s lamentable positioning – squared the ball to Nasri who passed the ball past Gazzaniga from point blank range.
Pochettino protested to no avail.
Still smarting from the official’s incompetence, Southampton were slow to react when AK 47 Kolarov fired a high velocity round into their box and Dzeko powered his downward header inside the far post.
3-1 to City but totally against the run of play.
The two- goal salvo set the tone for the second half with City far more assertive and infinitely more comfortable.
Javi Garcia replaced Fernandinho at the break. The Brazilian had been booked for handball, and Pellegrini probably feared Foy’s wayward refereeing could have seen City’s No 25 dismissed for perhaps ‘looking at the ref in a funny way’ or ‘stepping on the white lines’ – anything goes with this official who makes Clattenburg look almost competent!
Southampton’s high energy pressing game began to abate as the match wore on and fatigue became a factor. The Beast freshened up City’s frontline as Dzeko was withdrawn, the Bosnian having experienced his usual rollercoaster of highs and low in any given game.
Negredo has now gone a dozen games without scoring and his confidence has suffered as a result. Twice he could and should have scored opportunities that he would have buried before Christmas.
The Spaniard – a favourite with the fans – was literally inches from breaking his drought when his countryman and former Sevilla team-mate, Jesus Navas, crafted a teasing cross in between Gazzaniga and his despairing defenders in the 81st minute.
The Beast’s claw couldn’t quite connect, but the ball ran through to sub Stevan Jovetic, whose first touch of the game gave him the fifth goal of his City career and his team’s fourth on the day.
Most importantly it leaves Pellegrini’s men still in charge of their own destiny with seven games to play.
One of the funniest things to emerge in recent hours is a sentiment leaking from the open wounds of the vanquished Manchester United support, that they prefer City to win the title to ‘…ensure the PL crown stays in Manchester.’
It speaks volumes of their blind hatred for Liverpool and is perfectly timed with Anfield as City’s next port of call.
The Merseyside masses would have the world believe that red and white ribbons already adorn the PL trophy, such are the levels of giddiness at the prospect of ending their 24 years of crying and trying to become Champions of England.
Next Sunday offers the acid test when City go in search of a first win on the red side of Stanley Park since 2003 or, at the very least, continue a sequence of three consecutive draws since November 2011.
Sergio Aguero should be fit for selection – even if only as a super sub – and City’s attack continues to bang in the goals with the season’s total standing at 138.
Like City, Liverpool’s best form of defence is attack and with 88 scored, they are the only team to outstrip City’s 84 in the PL.
Perhaps more tellingly City have conceded 29 to ‘Pool’s goal against column of 39 – and that’s with City having played a game less.
City will take a massive step towards their second title in three years if they emerge undefeated next weekend.
Anything less would hand the initiative to the Scousers and upset City’s new band of supporters from Trafford Borough, London and Malaysia…and that would never do would it?
By David Walker