The South Coast sunshine should have proven to be the tonic that Manchester City needed ahead of sending nearly all of their first team squad to the World Cup, but as it had against Huddersfield a couple of weekends ago, it was not quite akin to the kind of calypso football that has adorned their season so far.
As the pundits said in the autumn, as City were laying down their marker, “Wait while the cold weather comes”. Well, the cold weather came and went and the points tally rose and rose, to the extent that a victory today would see City achieve 100 points for the season, a total that might never be surpassed in 38 games.
Once again Guardiola applied the laws of rotation seemingly desperate to achieve that record. Bravo, despite his error on Wednesday, was retained in goal, giving Ederson no chance of achieving his ambition of scoring this season. Danilo, too, was retained at right back, but the centre-back re-shuffle saw Stones get a game alongside Laporte. Delph was restored at left back.
The inevitable Fernandinho was once again present with De Bruyne and Gundogan further forward. Sane Sterling and Bernardo were the firepower today with de Jesus on the bench and Aguero still out injured.
Today was, of course, the sixth anniversary of “Aguerooooo” day when City played another team managed by Mark Hughes, Queen’s Park Rangers, and left it so very late to steal the title from Stretford with effectively the last kick of the season. What would today yield?
Once again Hughes team was threatened by the Premier League trapdoor although their defeat of Swansea in midweek meant that only an eleven goal swing would see Southampton relegated. There are those among us who detest Southampton for their antics at the last game at Maine Road, myself included, and I for one would have loved to see that swing happen. But the Blues were not really in the mood for it.
Too many players had an eye on the World Cup and looked as if they were going through the motions here.
The first half was pretty much a forgettable affair as nothing much happened. City played in pretty pictures but never looked like threatening a compact Saints side, who safe from relegation only had to prove to themselves they can still live with the best and looked reasonably likely to achieve precisely what the Terriers did at the Etihad two weeks ago.
Having changed the side for the visit of Brighton and finding a different hunger there, he changed it back to the more favoured footballers and it was in danger of going to the dogs. Sure the players wanted to attain a century of points but for most of this match didn’t look hungry enough.
With a plethora of records already in the bag, which can be witnessed on social media, there were still one or two achievements to be made and after 82 minutes he introduced Phil Foden to enable him to become the youngest ever player to claim a Premier League medal. Brahim Diaz had already been introduced some moments earlier, which ensured that he, too, would receive a title-winners accolade.
But it was the replacement made on the hour that to prove to be the most significant. Intent on his team getting to the hundred points mark, Guardiola replaced Delph with Gabriel de Jesus to try to introduce the additional firepower that seems to elude Sterling when he plays at centre-forward.
City were battering Southampton, with chances coming and going, but the desperate Saints rearguard were keeping City at bay. Sterling hit the post, a penalty was turned down as the game of attack v defence continued in the Saints half. It just wouldn’t go for City.
Southampton could barely get out of their box, let alone their half for a while as the high-octane juggernaut from the Etihad looked to conclude their season in style, but City failed time and again to make their superiority pay. De Jesus did introduce a different set of problems for the Saints defence, but despite their two central defenders having de-camped to Scouseland in recent season, the rear party still looked up to the task today. They blocked, ducked and dived all over the show to prevent City scoring and were almost successful.
That said, with City now playing a back three, chances were invited along the flanks, but the Saints couldn’t make it pay as they, at last, forced a couple of saves out of Bravo. With the news arriving from Swansea that Stoke were leading 2-1, there was even less riding on this match for the Saints, but they didn’t want to be the lambs to the slaughter. Indeed, they forced a goal-line clearance from Fernandinho in their bid to try to force a victory.
The Saints were scenting a chance with City taking risks at the back but appeared to lack the quality to turn the match in their favour. A poor back pass from Stone put Bravo under pressure, but there were no numbers for the Saints to be into and the Blues netminder rescued things.
As the match drew to a close there was a renewed urgency about City and the elusive 100 points. They were now battling away as if it was 2012 all over again as the best Premier League side ever seen on these shores knocked and knocked on the Saints’ doors but didn’t find it ajar. Hughes 5-4-1 approach was having the same result as his 4-5-1 back in 2012.
Earlier I mentioned the word “almost” because there is something about Mark Hughes sides and the 94th minute. No City fan, no football fan, no Stretford fan will ever forget 13 May 2012 when with 93 minutes and 20 seconds on the clock and the 123-second champion Phil Jones dancing with delight at the Stadium of Light, the news filtered through that one Sergio Aguero had produced the most unbelievable moment in Premier League history scoring an unlikely goal to remove the title from United and hand it to City.
Well, City were about to do likewise here and, in the process, produced two more records in a season that could have seen them bail out HMV.
Kevin de Bruyne had had a quiet match by his standards. In the knowledge that teammate Leroy Sane had produced three assists on Wednesday in KDB’s absence, his record of 15 assists had been matched, leaving both on 15 assists for the season.
As the game went into the 94th minute, “Hughesie Time”, instead of an intricate through ball between the lines, De Bruyne straightened up play finding de Jesus haring into the box. The young Brazilian lifted it over McCarthy and into the net, into the record books. The numbers may have been in the wrong order, the goal arriving in 93 minutes 02 seconds, but hey it was near enough and it sparked celebrations among everyone connected with Manchester City. Needless to say, Guardiola was delighted.
So tomorrow is “Blue Monday” in Manchester with a trophy parade commencing at the National Football Museum and finishing at a prepared staging area at the junction of Deansgate and Peter Street. The action starts at 1700 and ends at 2000. Get there early!