Manchester City remain firm favourites to be champions after a curate’s egg of a contest in which Riyad Mahrez starred yet slipshod defending from the home team and Southampton was at fault for all seven goals.
Still, City will not care. They are 14 points ahead of Manchester United, meaning a maximum 18 are required from their last nine games to claim the title. It may well be less as this calculation hinges on United winning all of their last 10 matches: this would take them to 84 points, two less than the tally six victories will give Pep Guardiola’s side.
For now, the manager will be pleased with this response to Sunday’s loss to United, and simply move on to Fulham on Saturday. Win there and City’s lead will be 17 points, having played two games more than their crosstown rival, who entertain West Ham on Sunday.
Guardiola’s selection featured five changes, the notable one Gabriel Jesus being replaced as the No 9 by Bernardo Silva, who was a floating operator in the position. Ralph Hasenhüttl’s XI had six different selections from Saturday’s win at Sheffield United, as they sought to claim a consecutive league victory for the first time since December.
They began believing they could do so. Most of their joy came along the left where Mohammed Salisu posed questions. Stuart Armstrong drove along a central channel and City could not prevent a pass to the No 22 before, eventually, they scrambled clear.
After Armstrong claimed an opening corner off Oleksandr Zinchenko, the roving left-back again troubled Guardiola’s men along their right. Here, slick Kyle Walker footwork was required for the ball to be worked to Ederson, who hoofed away.
This was encouraging for Southampton but City now pounced via a sweeping move in which Walker passed to Rúben Dias who from near halfway pinged the ball into Zinchenko, whose run along the left caught the visitors slumbering. The defender’s cross was hit first-time by Phi Foden and when Alex McCarthy parried, Kevin De Bruyne finished.
Southampton were disheartened; City’s rhythm and confidence elevated. They tapped possession around with ease but, then, Walker and Aymeric Laporte contrived to hurt them. First the former’s back-heel ceded the ball and suddenly Nathan Redmond was surging at Ederson, the forward forcing a corner. Now came Laporte’s error: Jannik Vestergaard headed James Ward-Prowse’s corner at City’s No 1, who saved, and when the Dane lunged for the rebound the Frenchman yanked him over.
Jonathan Moss awarded a penalty spot, VAR vindicated the referee, and Ward-Prowse beat Ederson via the centre of his goal. This seemed as clear a decision as one that Moss and VAR were about to turn down. After McCarthy miscontrolled a Salisu back-pass, Foden appeared to be felled by the goalkeeper. Yet referee and technology somehow concurred that this was not a penalty, much to the disgust of Guardiola and his bench.
City were stunned and nearly conceded before clearing their heads. Ederson barely saved a long-range Ward-Prowse effort, then Moussa Djenepo was clear but missed, badly, to the keeper’s right. Yet justice may have been done as City entered the break ahead. Oddly Che Adams, Southampton’s centre-forward, was in a right-back position from where he passed straight to Mahrez: the Algerian was 25-yards out yet his finish, to McCarthy’s right, was pinpoint.
City next administered a close-to-knockout blow with a third on the stroke of half-time. Mahrez’s feet bamboozled Saints but they were too slow, allowing his attempt to trickle back off McCarthy’s right post to Ilkay Gündogan, whose close range finish was simple.
City had Southampton under their spell, Silva and Foden each going close to adding a fourth. As if a string was attached to the ball, Saints could not stop their opponent pulling it around them. Thus there was scant surprise when Foden fed Mahrez and more dazzling feet from the virtuoso Algerian presaged another strike in the corner – again Saints had sleepwalked.
Yet the scoreline was 4-2 moments later when more lax concentration – this time from Silva – gave Redmond the ball and his back-heel was hammered home by Adams.
De Bruyne’s killer instinct, though, restored City’s three-goal advantage when beating McCarthy after Southampton again switched off and that was contest over. By the close Sergio Agüero had been given 16 minutes: if City’s record scorer can return to top form this will be a further bonus.