If James Beattie fails to score, where does that leave Southampton? Yesterday at the St Mary's Stadium, Manchester City's defence and midfield turned him into a bystander and left his usually ebullient team looking more dejected than at any time this season.
Having already established themselves in the safer part of the Premiership, neither of these clubs ought to have pessimistic thoughts along the lines that these days a couple of wins may rocket you up the table, but equally a couple of defeats can drop you like a pierced balloon.
But that's a fact, and it was why earlier in the week Southampton's manager, Gordon Strachan, was so pleased that at last, in a Carling match, two players, James Beattie and Brett Ormerod, got on the scoresheet. Until then it seemed that only Beattie knew how to find the goal, which left Strachan concerned about what happens if Beattie is off-form, as he was yesterday.
The late withdrawal from the City side of Nicolas Anelka, who Kevin Keegan said had a "slight calf strain" and was not involved in a "bust-up", cast some doubt on whether their scoring momentum could be maintained. Robbie Fowler slammed an early shot a shade wide before, in only the fourth minute, removing the question marks by selling a dummy to Claus Lundekvam 25 yards out and running on into the penalty area to crash a shot beyond Paul Jones: his fourth goal in 25 appearances.
Southampton's response was hesitant. Graeme Le Saux stormed up the left side purposefully enough, but once the ball was released to Beattie or Kevin Phillips, City suddenly closed them down and became menacing in their counterattacks. Steve McManaman relayed them on and Paulo Wanchope constantly threatened Southampton's central defence.
David Seaman's experience and quick reactions were impeccable when, shortly before half-time, he first blocked a rasping close-range shot from Le Saux then parried the returning drive from Beattie.
Throughout the first half and into the second, Beattie's first touch failed him. Several promising openings were spurned and a first-class one just after half-time saw him fail to control a fine cross from Phillips. Meanwhile, City propagated numerous classy movements and were unfortunate not to increase their lead when Fowler's header was cleared off the line by Lundekvam.
The diligence of Sylvain Distin and Richard Dunne against Beattie and Phillips continued to stifle Southampton's declining threat. Eventually Strachan removed Phillips and replaced him with Ormerod.
Having forfeited control in midfield, where City's Joey Barton was outstanding, Southampton then conceded their last chance of recovery when in the 85th minute they forlornly stalled and appealed for offside as McManaman lifted a high pass for Wanchope to pile in City's second.
At the end, Strachan turned on his heels with the comment: "We couldn't pass the ball, we were one-dimensional". Keegan called his team's performance "streetwise" - streets ahead of Southampton.
Southampton 0 Manchester City 2
Fowler 4, Wanchope 85
Half-time: 0-1 Attendance: 31,592
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