Date: 1st December 2014 at 9:36pm
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With the Saints marching into and sitting proudly at second place in the table one step behind the mighty Chelsea juggernaut which found itself struggling through the gears at the Stadium of Light on Saturday, and with City having breathed for themselves a new lease of life following successive overhaulings of Swansea and the mighty Bayern Munich, it would be all hands to the pump on both sides of this keenly awaited match-up between the so-called lost champions of Manchester City and the pretenders from the south coast.

Second in the table they might have been, but the Saints hadn’t really been tested so far this season in terms of real opposition and the arrival of Manchester City, Champions of England signalled the gateway to a period that will see all the leading teams play Southampton, plus the Stretfords.

Pellegrini opted for a slight shuffle knowing that the revisited 4-3-3/ 4-5-1 system seems to be suiting the Blues, but set up more or less 4-4-1-1 with Jovetic in just behind the league’s most prolific forward, Aguero. Navas and Nasri flanked the returning Yaya and Fernandinho, with Zabaleta, Kompany, Mangala and Clichy across the back. Hart was, of course guarding the sticks.

Southampton up until this match had only let in one goal at home all season and boasted a competent and mean defence. They are a lively outfit full of pace and running having discovered the art of upfield pressing and moving their willing full backs out wide to add weight. For all that Clyne is more than an emerging England international in the making, his ex-Chelsea colleague on the other side of the field is still more Plastic Bertrand than anything similar.

City, for their part, already written off in their prospective attempts to retain their title have reinvented themselves of late and are now close to the steely approach that saw them overhaul a huge points deficit to Arsenal, then finally see off Chelsea and gradually hunt down Liverpool to become Champions last season. In recent weeks, without Silva and without Dzeko, Pellegrini has started to get the winning mentality back into their heads and it was more than obvious in this banana-skin fixture at a ground that has at times been unkind to the Blues.

But not today, although, once again, some interesting decisions from a totally incompetent referee could have changed the outcome of this match in either direction.

City won the early exchanges although the Saints were set up to play in the uncompromising image of their current manager Koeman, taking no prisoners and trying to let City know they were in town. But City are becoming more wisened to this approach and despite some shuddering tackles by Schneiderlin, their key player who somehow did not end up at Liverpool, and Wanyama, the Blues went about their business in a business like fashion, attacking from all angles and hitting Southampton a bit like a whirlwind.

Much has been made this season, and many times in these pages, that there is some sort of conspiracy going on down at St George’s Park when our dutiful referees get together. Indeed after the debacle against CSKA one could be forgiven for thinking that it has also redeemed itself across the channel, but what we were about to witness today from the hapless Mike Jones was the kind of comic cuts usually reserved for Monty Python or the Two Ronnies.

Sergio Aguero is in scintillating form. Aguero, unlike the procession of cheats that adorned the Stretfords under the red-nosed knight, or even the long line of grass munchers schooled on Ashburton Grove, is the one genuine forward in the Premier League who does not take to the ground if someone breaks wind five yards away, so quite how Mr Jones, refereeing more like Miss Jones out of Rising Damp, did not see Fonte hack both of the Mighty Atom’s legs away, then beg for the foul to have taken place outside the box and produce a yellow card for diving is beyond reasonable explanation. But let’s face it, we constantly pray for referees to be consistent and there’s no doubt that they are when City are on the field. They are consistently awful.

This was the kind of atrocity that should see Jones banned for three matches. Aguero is not and never has been a diver. Who else in the Premier League has the capability of holding off three or four defenders, carving an opening and slamming the ball into the net? Why would he grass-munch in the hope of a generous decision, when he usually scores anyway? Fonte couldn’t believe his luck, because it was a certain penalty and a certain yellow card…and Jones booked Aguero?

That this extraordinary piece of arbitration did not disturb the great man’s concentration for the remaining 81 minutes was a tribute to his true class on a day when, once again nothing quite fell his way in terms of goals, but in terms of his all round play he was simply majestic.

Jovetic, playing with renewed enthusiasm and looking lively was unlucky not to give City the lead seeing his shot from a freshly squeezed pass from Nasri, cleared off the line, whilst at the other end, Hart made a fantastic double save and saw the ball finally hacked away in the kind of move that on occasion has ended in the back of his net.

This signalled the inclusion of Southampton as an attacking force at least for a little while and saw Mangala receive the first of his two yellow cards shortly afterwards. But City are a little unrelenting when they are in this mood and once Fernandinho and Yaya resumed their stride the reality was that there was only to be one winner in this match.

In what I used to call “City time” Aguero began to create the kind of panic that title pretenders fear. Often with two people chasing him it looked unlikely that he would get on the scoresheet today and indeed after 51 minutes he probed in the inside left channel, following a devastating reverse pass from Fernandinho, only to find his route to goal obliterated by the sheer number of red and white shirts. He had however spotted Yaya drifting away from the cover and in space outside the box. His pinpoint pass to the massive Ivorian saw Yaya set his sights and drive the ball through the sea of legs, faintly clip Alderweireld and hit the back of the net giving England’s number two, Forster not one prayer.

The show was on the road because now the Saints had to open their lines and try to press for an equaliser which not only failed to materialise, but also never looked like materialising. Pellegrini however was not for taking chances and promptly replaced Jovetic with Milner making City more compact but with both better attacking and defending options, such is the versatility of the best English player currently on the national team’s roster, in the Premier League this season.

This meant effectively that City would go on to totally control the rest of the match, especially when Lampard replaced the ineffective Nasri shortly thereafter. Indeed when Frank enters the fray you can almost immediately see a different kind of movement and a different level of intelligence as he looks for the right place to be at the right time.

As City pushed on and as Aguero saw a catalogue of chances not quite fall his way, a counter attack from Southampton saw Mangala needlessly haul down Long and then face the long walk to the tunnel as Jones fished in his pockets for the second yellow card in his desire to even things up. This followed Yaya’s only real show-boating error of the afternoon.

It meant the end of a not so productive afternoon for the ever-scary Navas as Pellegrini sent on Demichelis to ensure there were no shortages at the back. But this made City more dangerous up top. Within four minutes Milner dispossessed Davis, raced ahead drawing some of the cover away from Lampard who had positioned himself with perfect timing to find himself with enough space and time to drill Milner’s inch-perfect pass into the corner of the net. End of story. The Saints couldn’t recover from 1-0 so 2-0 was more than a bridge too far.

Yes they did get a few corners and free kicks but did nothing with them. Even when Kompany had to bail out with a hamstring injury with six minutes left to play, leaving his team double-short-handed, they couldn’t take advantage. But City did. It started with a corner for Saints, neatly chested away by Lampard to Clichy, back into Lampard who spotted Aguero peeling off to the left hand side. Clichy set off like a hare at a greyhound track and as the cover headed towards Sergio, he played the deftest of passes with the outside of his foot, around the defenders and into the path of Clichy who blasted in into the roof of the net to claim his first goal for City. He might not have scored today but Aguero turned provider twice as City cashed-in.

Despite now only having nine men on the field City easily saw the game out without drama.

This was a collective return to form by City, clearly with new belief after the trials and tribulations of the midweek event against Bayern. Yaya has, in the previous tidings of the Pedmachine, been invited to gather his things and go if he can’t be bothered, but no doubt having seen the performance of the season in his absence, decided it was time to present his own performance of the season and this was much more like it. He was strong, powerful, frightening as well as scoring a trade-mark important goal for the club. Not only that, he filled in at centre half once Kompany hobbled off, probably for the rest of the year, leaving Pellegrini a puzzle for Wednesday night’s visit to City’s bogey-ground in Sunderland.

Fernandinho, too, bucked up his ideas with a similarly excellent play not only in front of his back line but in his speed in getting forward whenever safe to do so. The English “special team” of Milner and Lampard made massive contributions once their manager called for them, but in the end it was about Sergio Aguero. Score he did not, miss one golden chance he did, but his all round play today was simply devastating, all action, confusing defenders and frightening the rest. If any player deserved a goal it was he and in reality he could have been adding another match ball to his growing collection had it not been for a ridiculous referee.

With Chelsea sacrificing two points at Sunderland, Pellegrini might be a little premature (Boycie!!) in warning Mourinho that City are coming to get him especially with their history of defeats at the Stadium of Light and even more especially with Boyata now likely to receive the call to partner Demichelis at centre back, but he knows that they are starting to get within City’s sights and any slip that City can capitalise upon, might well re-open the title race and basically shut up the critics.

As I said to Sue, if the Stretford’s hadn’t won it would have been a perfect weekend, but we must have sympathy for Flat Face. It has just dawned on him that in this country we play four times across Christmas and the poor chap wants to see his dear lady and his grandkids. Welcome to the land of real football Van Gaal. You knew the score when you took the job. You can always do a Denis Law and get yourself a four-match ban over Christmas, if not face up to the real world. Better managers than you have had to suffer when in charge of a Premier League team none more so that than one of your mighty predecessors and of course one Arsene Wenger. This is prime tv viewing time. Do you think for one minute that the broadcasting stakeholder care one iota if you don’t see your Mrs?

Guess what? I’ll be spending a lot of time with Sue over Christmas and treating her like the goddess she is and guess what also? You will be further from my thoughts than the planet Pluto.

 
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