Manchester City finally play like English Premier League contenders
SOUTHAMPTON // By the end, when Manchester City were two men down and three goals up, their fans had started chorusing that this was why they were champions. It was hard to disagree.
City’s has been a patchy crown defence, but the best week of their campaign concluded with its outstanding performance.
Southampton began in second place and ended in third in a swift swap with City. Winners looked contenders, losers pretenders.
It is rare that anyone beats Bayern Munich, arguably Europe’s finest side, and is then dismissed as a one-man team.
Even as the one man, Sergio Aguero, offered more evidence of his glorious gifts, City helped bury that notion.
There may be an over-reliance on the Argentine, partly because they are short of strikers, but City possess prolific players in deeper positions.
Yaya Toure and Frank Lampard are the only central midfielders to record 20 English Premier League goals in a season.
There was something fitting they were twinned as scorers at St Mary’s, the similarities extended as each drilled a 20-yard shot into the same corner of Fraser Forster’s net.
So two midfielders scored, while the usual scorer was a supplier. The unselfish Aguero delivered two assists.
Given his tendency to head straight for goal, there was an irony that two pivotal moments came when Aguero was running away from it: firstly when he was fouled by Jose Fonte within the penalty area but fell outside it.
Bizarrely, referee Mike Jones booked Aguero for diving, but City ensured this was no hard-luck story by providing an appropriate response.
Aguero set up Toure’s opener, again when seemingly running in the wrong direction – the road to glory can be long and winding. Both performance and result showed that the dominant sides exude a confidence in their own ability.
Southampton had begun with an imposing home record – scored 17, conceded one – but City played with ambition.
This was last season’s formula, of two strikers and a midfield lacking a holding player as Toure and Fernandinho resumed their energetic partnership.
It was an approach to indicate that conviction had been restored by defeating Bayern.
But the sometimes passive Manuel Pellegrini acted unusually decisively, too.
No sooner had Toure scored than the trustworthy James Milner was introduced and he, and another substitute in Lampard, combined for the second goal.
Pellegrini had summoned Martin Demichelis even before Eliaquim Mangala was sent off; rather than wasting energy arguing about the decision, he had a replacement centre-back ready.
When Vincent Kompany then limped off, Toure ended the day as a makeshift defender while left-back Gael Clichy sprinted away to belatedly score his first City goal.
It all added an improbable sheen to proceedings, rendering them more memorable in the way that triumphs in adversity, wins secured with style and pivotal victories often are.
They highlighted a difference between the sides: not just of quality, but in resources.
Southampton lost Morgan Schneiderlin at half-time and, with Jack Cork and James Ward-Prowse already out, it was an injury too many for a small squad.
They merit sympathy and not just because they were unfortunate to face City in this mood.
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Published: December 1, 2014 04:00 AM