A Saturday tea-time draw - live on ESPN UK at 1730 GMT - would be little use to either Manchester City or Southampton. Further ground cannot be lost. Both teams have surrendered strong positions of late, and need victory to place pressure on their peers after some notable slip-ups.
City’s recent pair of draws have handed the advantage to the Red machine from Old Trafford. They are relying on another Everton visit to M16 to help them back onto United’s heels. Last time, back in April, Everton’s 4-4 draw blew the title race wide open, as City took advantage with a 2-0 win at another relegation struggler in Wolves.
But that was in April, and this is February. That time, City played second, knowing what they had to do. Another City draw might inspire United to stretch the elastic of their lead to breaking point. Roberto Mancini has already stated his hope that United beat Real Madrid to increase their distraction with the Champions League.
He speaks as a man whose team has lacked notable spark, and has resorted to relying on matters that are beyond his control. Liverpool last week should have put City out of sight. Pepe Reina’s error and Sergio Aguero’s brilliance pulled City back to a point they barely deserved. That followed the petering out of their attack at Queens Park Rangers, but both performances revealed a distinct lack of inspiration. Aguero’s goal provided a reminder of the class they need to repeat. Mancini’s reign at City can only be viewed as a successful one but it has not been without its problems.
The recent signs are of a team looking bored with its own company, fraying at the seams. There are few players, save perhaps the ever-dependable Pablo Zabaleta, who are performing to their best. Mario Balotelli’s departure may have provided a release of pressure, but Carlos Tevez’s drop in form has created problems in the absence of a fourth striking option.
David Silva’s influence has dipped too, while Samir Nasri has never been a reliable back-up playmaker. His removal for Edin Dzeko at Loftus Road was a case of a player making no impression being removed after it was clear he was unlikely to make one. And then there are the absentees: Vincent Kompany might even make a return ahead of schedule, and he has been missed, even if he had not been as inspirationally stellar as last season; Yaya Toure powered the charge to the title last season and he has returned from South Africa, with brother Kolo, to speak of his confidence at City’s ability to claw back at United. The logic followed is that nine points in 13 games is far easier than eight in six.
Mancini has repeated the same idea many times. Although he is yet to adopt the hands-turned-up demeanour he portrayed as City began to carve back into United last season. That may be being saved for later. Maurico Pochettino not had time to develop such a routine at Southampton, though that was always going to be more difficult through an interpreter. He has also suffered in comparison with his predecessor.
Nigel Adkins left with a smile, well aware of his fate before the wider public knew it, but for all his positive thinking, he may be amused by his former team’s slipping form. Saints may well be saved by a group of teams performing yet worse than them, though the manner of chairman Nicola Cortese’s removal of Adkins has lessened their appeal to the neutral.
Under Pochettino, Southampton have looked solid against Everton, were unfortunate at Manchester United and denied very late indeed by Wigan last week. They have won just one Premier League game in 2013, and a previously decent position is in danger of being surrendered. And that one victory came against beleaguered Aston Villa. The draw against Wigan could be particularly crucial. It meant that unexpected points from a team like City might be needed to guarantee safety.
Southampton player to watch: Rickie Lambert. A trite choice perhaps, but a landmark might just be reached by a Football League veteran who has scored in every division. His strike at Wigan took him to 99 Southampton goals, scored in just four seasons. His 100th would see him equal Sainted greats like Mick Channon, Matthew Le Tissier, Terry Paine, Ron Davies and Martin Chivers. His contribution of recent years has neared the importance of those forefathers.
Manchester City player to watch: Yaya Toure. The Toure brothers are the subjects of two City terrace classics, their names sung to the tune of 2Unlimited’s rave classic “No Limits” and Inner Circle’s pop-reggae smash Sweat (A La La La La Long). Those tuneful fans might feel they have not seen the best of either, and the younger brother is far more vital to City’s challenge too. Last season saw him repeatedly catapulted from the base of midfield into a free attacking role, but his fitness levels are yet to make him look capable of that.
Key battle: Nathaniel Clyne v David Silva. England suddenly have a depth of decent full-backs. As Ashley Cole nears the end of his career, Southampton may one day provide the answer to both berths. Luke Shaw is coveted by Arsenal for their problematic left-back position; Clyne, at 21 and in his first season in the Premier League, has often looked hugely comfortable on the right. However, he will have to deal in Silva with one of football’s most lissom talents, and one who may drift across onto his unflavoured left foot. Clyne will need to curb his attacking instincts, since Pochettino is bound to play a safety-first approach. And if it’s not Silva, then City will look to load up down his flank.
Trivia: Saints haven’t beaten City in their last six attempts, with the last meeting at St Mary’s ending in a goalless draw during the 2004-05 campaign.
Stats: Manchester City have allowed their opponents fewer shots on target against them than any other team in the top flight (65). (Opta)
Odds: The Saints are 5.00 for the victory, the dreaded draw is 4.00 and the expected City win is 1.61 at bet365.
Prediction: City to squeeze a win, and hope that Everton can do them a favour once more.