In the end, even Manuel Pellegrini could afford to be gracious about referee Mike Jones’ inexplicable decision to book Sergio Aguero for diving when he was chopped down in the penalty area by Jose Fonte with just 10 minutes played. “He’s a human,” said Pellegrini of Jones, “and everyone can make mistakes.”
It was most likely an altogether less flattering description of Jones being muttered in the Manchester City technical area during the first half on Sunday after that decision to deprive Aguero of a penalty and besmirch his reputation. At the time it felt like a serious blow for City, playing against a side that had previously only conceded one goal at home all season; by the end, however, the away team had run away with it.
This was an occasion, all too rare this season, when City looked every inch the champions of England. They finally struck after half-time through Yaya Touré and ended the game with nine players on the pitch, three goals and an unflappable aura about them. The best teams ignore the setbacks and power on regardless, and this was City’s way, led by the peerless Aguero in attack.
He was outstanding as usual, and it helped that City could call upon substitute Frank Lampard in the second half to score his third league goal of the season and extinguish any lingering hopes that Southampton might have had of getting back into the game. By that time Eliaquim Mangala had been sent off and by the end Vincent Kompany had to leave the pitch, with all substitutes already used. It does pose some questions about the defence for Wednesday’s visit to Sunderland but in the meantime City could enjoy a command performance against a team who rarely lose at home.
They moved above Southampton into second place, and they made up two points on Chelsea, for once slowed in that remorseless march at the top of the table. For Southampton it was a blow to the dreams they have allowed themselves to entertain over recent weeks. It will not get much easier in the next few days. They are at the Emirates against Arsenal on Wednesday and then Manchester United visit next Monday.
Ronald Koeman’s team were not miles behind City, they just lacked the finesse where it mattered most. “We were not good enough,” said the Southampton manager, bemoaning his team’s mistakes in critical moments. His players did not pose enough of a threat in attack but it was a sign of how far they have come that they could be regretful about a defeat to the champions.
As for Jones, Koeman suggested that the referee had been reluctant to penalise Fonte’s foul on Aguero because he had already needlessly booked Victor Wanyama for a challenge in the first seven minutes. It turned into a nightmarish first half for the referee, who also blew for an offside decision when the obvious option was to give City the advantage.
The challenge by Southampton captain Fonte on Aguero in the 10th minute took not one but both legs from underneath the City striker. Fonte leapt to his feet and pointed to a spot of the pitch outside the box, indicating that he knew it was a foul and was trying to negotiate a less damaging punishment. It was a tactic his manager Koeman would use to great effect when he was a player.
It was a foul and it should have been a penalty, although Aguero’s tumble took him outside the area. None of which seemed to matter to Jones, who had decided, without giving himself time to think, that the Argentine had dived. He compounded the mistake by booking the striker. From then on the official, sensing an error on his own part, was skittish and uncertain.
It added to the drama of the spectacle, if not the quality. City dominated the possession but they struggled to create many chances. The best of the first half came on the half-hour when Stevan Jovetic had a shot to which Fraser Forster got a hand and the rebound was cleared by Toby Alderweireld.
In the second half, the composed Alderweireld was required to step into midfield to take the place of the injured Morgan Schneiderlin, who was replaced by Maya Yoshida. Southampton’s best opportunity of the first half required two saves by Joe Hart, the first from Graziano Pelle and then Steven Davis, impressive in the playmaking role. Kompany roared out to block a possible third for Dusan Tadic.
It was Aguero who made the first City goal, his ability to turn away from challenge after challenge and retain possession the greatest strength that City have in attack. On this occasion there was good work from Jovetic to find the Argentine but from there he kept the ball in that way that he does until he saw the best option, which was Touré lurking on the edge of the area. He dispatched the ball with his right foot past Forster.
The red card for Mangala forced a change of plan. By then Lampard was on, used shrewdly by Pellegrini in that advanced role behind Aguero. Booked in the first half, Mangala found himself put in trouble with 16 minutes left by Touré’s careless pass. As the substitute Shane Long accelerated away from Mangala, the defender sensed danger. He responded in a panic, knocking Long over.
It was a red card for the £32m man and a change required for Pellegrini, who brought on Martin Demichelis for Jesus Navas and prepared for the best that Southampton could throw at his team.
In the end it was Lampard who settled it, taking the ball from James Milner on the left and sweeping a low shot past Forster with the kind of practised ease he has managed for years.
In front of the England manager, Roy Hodgson, Forster did well to stop Aguero as he went through late on and tried to go round the Saints goalkeeper. There was no stopping the last goal, made by Aguero, which Gaël Clichy tucked in at the back post. City played out the game with nine men, and brim full of the confidence that a win like this generates.
Southampton (4-2-3-1): Forster; Clyne, Fonte, Alderweireld, Bertrand; Wanyama, Schneiderlin (Yoshida, ht); Tadic, S Davis (Mayuka, 82), Mane (Long, 67); Pelle.
Substitutes not used: K Davis (gk), Gardos, Reed, Targett.
Manchester City (4-4-2): Hart; Zabaleta, Kompany, Mangala, Clichy; Navas (Demichelis, 74) Fernandinho, Toure, Nasri (Lampard, 65); Aguero, Jovetic (Milner, 55).
Substitutes not used: Caballero (gk), Sagna, Fernando, Pozo
Booked Southampton Wanyama Manchester City Aguero, Mangala
Sent off: Mangala
Referee: M Jones
Man of the match: Aguero
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