Pep Guardiola will always have points to prove with his magnificent Manchester City side, despite being the fastest manager in Premier League history to amass 500 points.
In a tough and bruising encounter with a Southampton team that were more sinners than saints, Pep chalked up his 500th point in just his 213th top flight game, the only downside being he couldn’t make it to 502 at St Mary’s Stadium.
Obviously, even Pep can’t win them all, and sadly it proved to be the case against Ralph Hasenhuttl’s well drilled starting XI, who could so easily have been reduced to nine, courtesy of their ‘challenges’ on Aymeric Laporte and Jack Grealish.
At this point I should say that I quite warm to Hasenhuttl as an individual, if not some of the sinister antics deployed by the likes of Romeu, Bednarek and Armstrong.
The Southampton boss more or less admitted he was relieved to still have 11 players on the pitch at the final whistle. He was savvy enough to substitute both Bednarek and Armstrong long before the 90 minutes were up, just in case referee Simon Hooper or the colour blind clowns operating VAR, actually woke up to what was happening out on the field of play.
Quite how Stuart Armstrong was given a yellow, and not a red card, for a ‘studs up’ raking of Laporte’s upper thigh only VAR knows. It was – in football vernacular – a ‘nailed on sending off’, just in the way John Stones had been dismissed earlier in the season away at Aston Villa – only this was far worse.
PGMOL and VAR’s explanation was that it was merely a ‘glancing blow’! It was an ugly, horrible looking ‘challenge, with seemingly only the VAR official and the Sky commentary team happy to agree.
At least the studio pundits Graeme Souness and Micah Richards had the balls to state otherwise, but the nauseating Sky anchor – or something sounding like anchor – David Jones – persisted with the ‘glancing blow’ descriptor like a disciple on a mission to convince and convert any doubting Thomas'.
How would Jones and the monotone drone, Alan Smith – on co-commentary – would fair if they received similar ‘glancing blows’? Incredulously Jones managed to surpass himself when asserting that Southampton should have had more than the draw, presumably based on their 26% possession, two corners and seven shots.
This contrasted with City’s eleven corners and 20 attempts on goal, of which three strikes from De Bruyne, Rodri and Jesus, hit the ‘woodwork’.
If Jones and Sky believe Southampton deserved all three points, they’re probably applying the same supposition by which Arsenal were acclaimed as Club World Champions on New Year’s Day, after winning the ‘We Won The First Half Against City’ Cup.
Sadly it's no longer surprising that any City opponent is portrayed as plucky and deserving underdogs, irrespective of how dirty and cynical their play and tactics.
At this juncture, and in the interests of balance and casting aside any sense of entitlement, I should acknowledge the excellence of Kyle Walker-Peters’ first ever Premier League goal – an exquisite strike when the home team were in the ascendency in the early stages of the game.
By City’s amazingly high standards, they were well below par in a first half of sloppy defending, errant passing and poor finishing, but as the saying goes, ‘shit happens’ – and it certainly was happening to Jack Grealish.
He was the target of some heavy tackles and malicious fouls by Hasenhuttl’s hitmen, particularly Polish centre back, Jan Bednarek and Spanish ‘enforcer’, Oriol Romeu. One evil lunge in particular put City’s £100m man on the floor, only for Romeu to stand over the prone Grealish, snarling and taunting that he was feigning injury. It led to an alleged confrontation in the tunnel after the game.
Whereas there was an element of red and white thuggery on the pitch, City did as City do and continued fighting until the end, dominating the second half and more than deserving of Aymeric Laporte’s 65th minute headed equaliser.
The visitors had a very strong penalty claim denied when De Bruyne was taken down – arguably just inside the 18 yard box – but the vagaries of VAR decided otherwise. It looked – at least through slightly tinted sky blue spectacles – like a penalty, but it was contentious.
With Liverpool winning at Crystal Palace, closing the gap to nine points – and still with a game in hand – the media can be forgiven for getting a tad moist at the prospect of a two-way title tussle.
As for VAR and any outrageous penalty awards - look no further than Diego Jota's pathetic performance. Having lost control of the ball he ran into Palace keeper, Guaita. LiVARpool's absent diving team of Salah and Mane - away on AFCON duty - have taught their Portuguese partner well.
One can but wonder if Michael Masi - Formula One's controversial Race Director who handed the title to Max Verstappen in Abu Dhabi - has switched roles to PGMOL, with a brief to try and enliven the Premier League race.
Ultimately it all comes back to City being City, particularly under Guardiola, as the club who continue to mess with an agenda that demands Liverpool, United, or at a push, Arsenal, should be winning the league. The red masses represent the media’s main demographic and happy reds mean more and more, subscribers to their stations or purchasers of their papers.
City are an inconvenience – a team, a squad, of interchangeable brilliance, under the tutelage of the greatest coach in the modern era, if not, of all time.
It’s a sad fact that City get sh* t simply because they’ve upset the proverbial apple cart. It’s a weird and warped back-handed compliment, but with five-and-a-half years served in the Premier League, one doubts if Pep gives a flying wotsit.
His recent comments about never ‘betraying’ City, have been construed by some, as a glimmer of hope that he may stay at the Etihad beyond 2023. Can City fans, as well as Sheikh Mansour and Khaldoon Al Mubarak, dare to dream of 10 years of Guardiola in M11 3FF?
In game show parlance, ‘Points make prizes’. Pep has already banked 500 in his relentless drive for the game’s big prizes and, if he puts pen to paper, the media and City haters will have to suffer an extended inconvenient truth.
Dedicated to the memory of a dear departed City Blue – Neil Jones #Cans – who would have been 52-years old today. He fought ‘til the end, but passed away on derby day, March 7th last year. Gone but never ever forgotten.
By David Walker