Saints surge back and force City to hold on

Posted by Andy Brassell

AP PhotoPellegrini and Pochettino oversaw an entertaining encounter.

SOUTHAMPTON -- There are, it appears, some things you can hold true in a Premier League season that demands constant reassessment and refocus and, at the end of Saturday's 1-1 draw, Southampton and Manchester City had resumed the default faces that have, thus far, defined their respective campaigns.

The sides began in the manner of the form each has shown in recent weeks, with City dominant and Saints reticent. However, by full time, the warmth and noise blowing in from the stands told us that Mauricio Pochettino's Saints are no more a busted flush than Manuel Pellegrini's City are an inexorable force at the top of the table.

It was the Chilean’s first visit to St. Mary’s, the site of a February defeat that had been a nadir of the latter Roberto Mancini era at the club. It was a loss underpinned by barely believable defensive pitfalls, culminating in Gareth Barry's own goal.

Wednesday's win at West Bromwich Albion may have suggested that City's perennially imperious home form was indeed portable, though the concession of a pair of cheap goals to Steve Clarke's side in the closing minutes hinted that the away woe of last season -- and so far in this -- has not completely disappeared.

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Yet on this occasion, points dropped were not simply as the result of defensive errors. After an opening 25 minutes in which City bristled with attacking menace and took the lead through Sergio Aguero's first-time, left-footed finish from Aleksandar Kolarov's cross, Southampton were excellent.

"We've had a negative run of results," reflected Pochettino after the game, "but we've kept our belief. We've been a little bit unfortunate in a few of these games, but we've kept on trying to play the same way. I'm very happy with the team."

The manager had spoken Friday of his faith in the club's youngsters, and similarly to Borussia Dortmund in their own recent trough -- if we take the shared attributes of youthful personnel and a keenness to press high to a slightly stretched conclusion -- there has been no throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Like the Champions League finalists, Southampton never looked completely lost during their run of three successive defeats, and their sense of continuity has kept them on the right track.

The actors may change for Pochettino, but the chorus still stays the same. In the significant absence of both Victor Wanyama -- the Kenyan is set to be out for a while yet with a hairline fracture of the ankle -- and Morgan Schneiderlin, James Ward-Prowse and Jack Cork filled in as the double pivot to compelling effect, and deserve enormous credit for doing so.

Southampton's defence had slipped from its impeccable best of late, with eight goals conceded in those recent losses to Arsenal, Chelsea and Villa. It is a loss of rhythm that has been felt ever since Dejan Lovren's late withdrawal prior to defeat at the Emirates and is also true of the Croatia defender on an individual level.

Lovren's wild slide on Gabriel Agbonlahor -- in an unsuccessful attempt to prevent Villa's opening goal on Wednesday -- was a return to the impetuous play that made his final days at Lyon so unhappy, rather than the commanding demeanour of his opening months in England.

It continued here in the early stages, with one reckless lunge on Alvaro Negredo on the Southampton left that conceded a needless free kick, and was lucky not to yield a booking for the centre-back.

This was not Saints' only escape when they trailed, with the most notable being Aguero thumping Pablo Zabaleta's precise pull-back wastefully over the top when the majority of spectators expected the net to ripple, just after the half-hour mark. How things might have been different.

"One action alone can't explain this result," said Pellegrini afterward, who refused to blame his main man and rightly explained that the initiative had been surrendered elsewhere, with City hassled and harried for space at every opportunity.

"Our major problem was that we lost the ball too easily," Pellegrini lamented, "and they have good players, who can keep it."

That had been clear even in defeat against Villa, where Southampton monopolised a staggering 77 percent of possession. In addition to Ward-Prowse and Cork, Steven Davis, Adam Lallana and Jay Rodriguez provided zip and vitality.

Pellegrini's men never gave the impression of being overly secure at the back, even though their forward play frequently threatened to overwhelm the hosts in the first period. Vincent Kompany made one last-ditch challenge to halt a rampaging run by Luke Shaw, and James Milner later popped up in the six-yard box to deny Lallana a tap-in as the noise from an appreciative home crowd swelled.

Bryn Lennon/Getty ImagesAfter going more than two months since his last league goal, Osvaldo now has two in two games.

Kolarov then did just about enough to put off Callum Chambers at the back post when the teenager looked set for a simple nod-in from fellow full-back Shaw's fine delivery, but the equaliser was coming and it duly arrived when Dani Osvaldo firing an irresistible, dipping shot over Costel Pantilimon after turning Kompany and Zabaleta inside-out.

It was a goal that was well-merited, not least for the fact that Pochettino's men refused to let their chins drop while it looked as if the visitors could swamp them.

City's midfield had been somewhat mute during this building onslaught, a recurring theme which perhaps presents an even greater threat to their title ambitions than their away form does in isolation.

This was another game that Yaya Toure might have bossed, but didn't quite manage to, and the Ivorian was replaced with 10 minutes to go in favour of Edin Dzeko as Pellegrini sought to try to snatch the points.

That lack of grip in the middle of the park had earlier been reflected by Pellegrini's double change just after the hour, when Javi Garcia and Jesus Navas came on for Milner and Negredo.

It made little difference, with Saints still making most of the running and the sight of Navas having to drop deep into central midfield to retrieve the ball -- rather than blazing down the right -- indicative of City's difficulties.

Aguero continued to threaten in the second period, denied once by goalkeeper Paulo Gazzaniga and also shooting across the face of goal after a typical zip down the left. However, individual quality should not be confused with collective control. Southampton, fired by Osvaldo and Rodriguez, always looked more likely winners.

"It's a good result," argued Pellegrini. "I don't feel like we lost two points. In other games, I felt like we deserved more, but here, a draw was a fair result. We didn't play well today."

That reaction is testament to Southampton's quality and ambition, but City must find the grittiness to match their own pretensions.


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