After their scorching of Leeds, Manchester United’s lofty ambitions were offered a reality check in a draw at Southampton on Sunday afternoon.
The 1-1 scoreline was a fair reflection of a clash that neither side commanded for lengthy spells, with both enjoying periods where it seemed they could seal it.
United couldn’t muster the full extent of their comeback powers but are now unbeaten in 27 away league games, equalling the English top-flight record that was set by Arsenal between April 2003 and September 2004.
Fred had offered Saints a supremely early gift at St Mary’s, a free-kick after 20 seconds. James Ward-Prowse surprised David de Gea by trying to spank it in from 35 yards out but the goalkeeper pushed it behind for a corner.
At the other end, Tino Livramento cleared off the line after a comedic sequence of events where Bruno Fernandes’s dangerous ball into the area hit a stumbling Harry Maguire and looped on to the top of the bar all while Alex McCarthy was also falling backwards.
Mohammed Salisu almost kneed it into his own net as he tried to get rid but Livramento dealt with the danger.
Southampton’s Ghanaian centre-back did however execute a brilliant block to deny a Paul Pogba shot, before the midfielder headed over from Luke Shaw’s dead-ball delivery.
United were shaping the encounter, with their French maestro in particularly tasty form. One of his highlights was contouring a divine long pass with the outside of the boot but the visitors found themselves behind on the half-hour mark.
A good spell for Southampton suddenly became a great one when Jack Stephens went in strong on Fernandes – perhaps too strong – and Moussa Djenepo took up possession. The ball was worked to Adam Armstrong and then Che Adams, whose unconvincing left-foot hit deflected off Fred and found the bottom corner.
United’s defence were non-responsive in the build-up to that goal, whatever the argument about the initial challenge on Bruno Fernandes.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men have a habit of clawing back though, bouncing back to win 10 league games last season after falling behind, which included a 3-2 victory at this ground having been twice stung without answer.
United needed just nine minutes after the interval to reduce the deficit. Pogba’s stellar footwork landed in Mason Greenwood’s path. The forward drove a low shot between the legs of Salisu and straight through McCarthy.
Jadon Sancho was thrown on for Anthony Martial, Pogba was in his element and it looked like Southampton would be on the ropes.
The France international skipped past a few markers with ease before directing a left-footed shot back across goal that beat a diving McCarthy but moved just wide of the far post.
The home keeper made a vital intervention to deny a Fernandes header and the feeling was that United were well on their way to turning the encounter in their favour.
But they were fortunate not to be trailing again. Ward-Prowse thieved the ball off a dawdling Maguire in a dangerous area. Adams picked up possession and supplied a sweet through pass to Armstrong, whose low, left-footed effort was superbly saved by de Gea.
The momentum had completely shifted.
United then scrambled clear as Armstrong threatened to convert excellent work from Ward-Prowse and Adams again.
Southampton were collecting free-kicks for fun, putting de Gea under pressure, but failed to profit from it.
There was relief at the final whistle from both teams, who seemed to conspire to lose it at different stages.
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