Kevin Keegans's back problems had eased sufficiently for him to take charge for the first time in three weeks, but the pain that goes with being manager of Manchester City has not gone away.
A nervy performance saw them give away two simple goals. And no sooner had Nicolas Anelka's reply midway through the second half given City hope that they might stagger back to their feet than they caught by yet another counterpunch.
Two goals from Kevin Phillips and another from James Beattie dragged City to the brink of the relegation trap-door, and on this display they do not look good enough to avoid falling through.
Southampton climbed into the top half of the table by marking tightly, tackling quickly and converting a high percentage of their chances. "Our priority was not to allow them time on the ball, and it paid off,'' said their manager, Paul Sturrock. "But City seemed to be playing with a lot of fear today.''
Keegan had scarcely climbed back into the dug-out when he discovered nothing had changed since he saw City lose at Leeds, despite four draws in his absence. South-ampton carved them open down the right with their first attack, David Prutton setting up Rory Delap for a cross which was scrambled clear for a corner.
Things got no better when Steve McManaman was forced to withdraw after less than 10 minutes, to be replaced by Trevor Sinclair. And when goalkeeper David James completely missed a back pass from Michael Tarnat, it merely confirmed it was business as usual at the City of Manchester Stadium.
Sinclair's arrival did perk City up briefly, but when the chances arrived they were missed with monotonous regularity. Anelka raced clear only to side-foot his shot wide of the post, Graeme Le Saux cleared Sinclair's back- header off the line, and Robbie Fowler's lob was plucked from under the bar by goalkeeper Antti Niemi.
The visitors weathered the storm and took the lead 11 minutes before the interval in simple but effective fashion. Marian Pahars, making his first start for two months after ankle and groin injuries, was released down the left, and his first-time cross was met at speed by Beattie, with a powerful header from the edge of the six-yard box that gave James no chance. It was the Southampton captain's 16th goal of the season.
If Antoine Sibierski could have finished as cleanly from a similar position, City might have gone in level, but his header from Fowler's cross drifted wide, and it was Southampton who came closer to increasing their lead when Phillips and Danny Higginbotham both went close.
City should have clawed their way back early in the second period. Anelka's shot from the edge of the penalty area looked to be on its way in when it was deflected, and although it looped into Fowler's path, he was unable to get the touch that would have restored parity. The Saints immediately showed them how it should be done, Beattie nodding on a throw to Phillips, whose header flew into the top corner.
Keegan replaced Fowler with Paulo Wanchope and brought on Claudio Reyna, back after an ankle injury, in an attempt to inspire his flagging midfield. But Southampton's impressive back four dealt confidently with everything that was thrown at them until Wanchope got behind them and stabbed the ball to Anelka, who briefly gave City some hope.
However, almost immediately Southampton restored the differential when Phillips raced clear and calmly scored his second goal with an angled drive placed into the far corner of the net.
Keegan said afterwards: "We got what we deserved today. Southampton played without the tensions and worries we've got, and it showed.
But our position is not desperate at the moment, and we have still got our destiny in our own hands. We can still get ourselves out of trouble, but we have got to show more composure and confidence.''
Nevertheless, City are just one place above the bottom three, and the tensions that marked this performance will be even greater when City visit fellow strugglers Leicester next weekend.
Manchester City 1
Beattie 34, Phillips 55, 81
Half-time 0-1 Attendance: 47,152Reuse content