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Manchester City 3 Southampton 2
SAINTS may have come away from the Etihad Stadium without any points but they did take a sense of belief back down the M6 with them.
For much of the game it looked like they hadn’t heeded the message, but then, once their main man, Rickie Lambert, was finally introduced to the action and it all changed.
Saints may have suffered a harsh reality of the Premier League – that it is incredibly unforgiving – but they can at least hold their heads high and wait for easier challenges than facing the champions to come their way with a sense of belief they can compete at this level.
The teamsheet before the game certainly caused a few stirs.
There was always a decent chance that James Ward-Prowse would figure, and he was not fazed by it, but nobody reckoned on Lambert being left on the bench.
It almost looked like a tactical masterstroke in the end but the real assessment should be that it may almost have cost them a hammering.
In some ways the scoreline suggests the new shape did its job before Lambert came on, but that was to cover up the cracks.
City totally dominated Saints in that first 55 minutes and had it not been for a missed penalty, the crossbar, Kelvin Davis and some wayward and lacklustre finishing they would have been totally out of it before Lambert had the chance to have his impact.
To play Guly do Prado as the lone striker proved as curious as it seemed.
Do Prado has many qualities but holding the ball up, surely a must for a player in such a role, is not chief amongst them.
Duly Saints found themselves pinned back and desperately hanging on and hoping.
Once Lambert entered the fray and gave them that genuine physical presence through the middle they looked a good side, not one there just to make up the numbers but able to compete with a fantastically talented City team.
After a bright few opening minutes from Saints they were grateful to Kelvin Davis as he dived to his left to stop a weak David Silva penalty that resulted from Samir Nasri’s flick into Carlos Tevez and a sharp turn that caught out Jos Hooiveld.
The chances continued to roll in for City, the main criticism of whom had to be their insistence on trying to intricately pass their way through the middle of a backed up Saints team.
Silva and Tevez both only picked out Davis before the pressure told five minutes before half time.
Nasri’s delightful ball set Tevez in behind.
It was a borderline offside call that went the attacker’s way and he finished low at the near post, which may have disappointed Davis but also underlined the striker’s class.
Saints were holding on for half time and Edin Dzeko fired a shot at Davis, as did Tevez, before the whistle went.
It was more of the same at the start of the second period as a now rampant City spurned chances to make their lead a comfortable one via Dzeko, Gael Clichy and Silva, who struck the bar.
Then came the introduction of Lambert and how quickly things changed.
The team seemed lifted and immediately Adam Lallana fired wide before Saints found an equaliser on 59 minutes.
Just two minutes after stepping onto the field Lambert swept the ball home from just inside the area with the inside of right foot after a ricochet off of Do Prado presented it on a plate.
Incredibly, just 12 minutes later, Saints were in dreamland as they took the lead at the home of the champions.
Jack Rodwell’s pass from a corner was intercepted by Lallana who broke forward.
He fed it to Steven Davis , on the pitch as a sub himself for two minutes, and the move ended with the new man finishing an almost carbon copy chance to that of Lambert.
It seemed too good be true and so it eventually proved. City seemed to awaken from their semi-slumber and really stepped on the gas.
When they did that they were awesome.
They levelled three minutes later as a corner was headed out to Kompany on the edge of the area, his low shot hit Yaya Toure and presented Dzeko with the chance to turn home.
After Mario Balotelli had hit the side netting, Kelvin Davis had saved Toure’s free kick and Dzeko had flicked a header wide, City got what proved to be the winner.
With ten minutes remaining on the clock Clichy’s left wing cross was headed straight back into the danger zone by Danny Fox and Nasri fired a crisp half volley into the top corner.
Saints kept fighting and had a better finisher than Jose Fonte been on the end of Lambert’s guided header the ball may not have sailed over the bar.
These are the harsh realities of an unforgiving division – lots of effort, lots of hope, but no points.
But not every game will be this tough. Saints will surely strengthen their hand further in the transfer market and they should now have something that money cannot buy – belief.