When the cameras pointed up towards Roy Hodgson on the full-time whistle of Southampton’s comprehensive 4-1 win over Hull City on Saturday, England’s manager understandably wore a broad grin.
Adam Lallana, Rickie Lambert and Jay Rodriguez -- the three players on show called up for the week’s friendlies with Chile and Germany -- had excelled in the Saints’ attack, combining to disfigure a respected City defence.
As auditions go, it was close to perfection. Lallana, in particular, was captivating, scoring a goal he will cherish to the grave.
For all the jubilation inside St Mary’s Stadium, however, there was a trio who badly fluffed their lines in esteemed company.
Although Tom Huddlestone, Jake Livermore and Curtis Davies accept they are longshots for next summer’s carnival, their wonderful form through the opening three months of City’s campaign was beginning to send ripples outside of East Yorkshire. All three have previously flirted with the England set-up and all three share ambitions to return.
Hodgson is the man they’ll need to impress over the next six months, but an uphill battle to Brazil saw its incline steepen sharply on Saturday afternoon.
City’s three potential World Cup gatecrashers all did themselves a huge disservice. Huddlestone and Livermore, who both won England caps last season, were overrun and ineffective against Southampton’s breathless tempo. Use of the ball was unusually sloppy and mistakes punctuated their play.
Davies, meanwhile, served up his worst performance in a City shirt. So often dominant and composed since his summer switch from Birmingham, the central defender was a country mile from his imperious best. An ill-advised switch to a three-man defence resulted in a fractured and confused defensive unit and an excellent Southampton attack duly made hay.
Just like Huddlestone, Livermore and Davies, the Tigers plunged deep below the high standards they have set under Steve Bruce this season.
Southampton, now third in the Premier League, were worthy winners but it was too easy, too often.
A defence that had conceded just three goals in its previous five Premier League outings unraveled in a manner seldom seen during Bruce’s reign. The discipline and organisation synonymous with City in 2013 vanished. Bruce put it better than most. “We had our backsides kicked,” he reluctantly said, with no hint of a smile.
Losing on their travels is nothing new -- five of six games away from the KC Stadium have ended with empty pockets -- but this was very different. Manchester City, Everton and Spurs were all taken the distance before escaping with three points. Southampton’s were gift-wrapped.
The Monday morning post-mortem will make for grim viewing. All four Saints goals involved a defender or goalkeeper in the wrong. Davies and Ahmed Elmohamady were both culpable for the opener when beaten in the air by Lambert, while a scrambled defensive line was carved open in the build-up to the second.
Lallana deserves all the praise he gets for a wonderful third. Dancing his way into the box and beating Steve Harper, it was a magnificent demonstration of balance and trickery. Yet just as Peter Reid regrets not taking down Diego Maradona during the World Cup quarterfinals of 1986, so to Davies and Elmohamady must rue their flimsy challenges long before Lallana’s finish.
City dodged embarrassment with a spirited second-half display. Yannick Sagbo’s smart finish gave the traveling supporters something to cheer before Southampton restored a fitting gloss through Steven Davis' fourth, but the Tigers will rest for the international break in the bottom half of the table for the first time since mid-September.
A third defeat in four games should at least serve to focus the mind. The visit of Crystal Palace to the KC Stadium on Nov. 23 carries the exact same significance of the date with Sunderland last weekend. Win and all will be rosy, anything less and the jitters will creep in ahead of facing Liverpool and Arsenal in a daunting start to December.
A fortnight’s rest should thankfully allow influential figures to creep back toward the first team. Although the Tigers will not see Sone Aluko until February following his desperately disappointing Achilles injury last week, Robbie Brady and James Chester could both return to fitness for the all-important clash with Palace.
Bruce, in the meantime, will be glad to see the back of this segment. Three points from a possible 12 was far from disastrous given the opposition faced away from home, but the injury misfortune needs to end here. A run of nine games in 38 days up to the new year will need all hands to the pump if the Southampton loss is to become the season’s exception.