A less-than-impressive win marked the beginning of Manchester City's title defence. With their season starting with a home game against newly-promoted Southampton, one might be forgiven for expecting the hosts to essentially stroll to three points under the August sun, but City had an off day while the Saints played superbly, coming very close to staging the biggest upset of the young season.
Southampton acquitted themselves fairly well early in the first half, stationing themselves firmly in the City box and controlling play in the early stages. It was fairly obvious that that was something of a mirage, but for the first ten minutes the Saints showed that they could play with the big boys.
And injure the big boys, as it turns out. Sergio Aguero was threatening to burst down the City left when he was halted by a ferocious tackle from Nathaniel Clyne, the sort that makes you wonder whether it was entirely legal despite the fact that the right back took the ball cleanly. Aguero landed very awkwardly, twisting his knee, and after several minutes of medical attention was stretchered off -- obviously bad news for the defending champions.
Roberto Mancini's mood would not have been improved by what happened next. 17 minutes in, some excellent play from City led to Jos Hooiveld bringing Carlos Tevez down in the box, a stonewall penalty despite the defender's protests. It was a perfect opportunity for City to break the deadlock... and David Silva made a complete mess of it, sending a weak spot kick straight at Kelvin Davis. Ooops.
That penalty miss looked as though it could end up fairly costly. City weren't looking particularly dangerous in front of goal, with Southampton defending both pretty well and in numbers, but Tevez was obviously a bright spark and he was able to execute a perfectly timed run and finish just before halftime to give the hosts a 1-0 lead, picking up the ball from Samir Nasri before slotting in at Davis' near post.
For many teams, that would have been enough to collapse. Southampton tried to, but City wouldn't let them. The second half saw some gilt-edged changes for Mancini's men to pad their lead, with Silva hitting the bar and substitute Edin Dzeko unable to control after some fine work by Nasri on the left wing and the goal at his mercy. Eventually the Saints would regroup and make City pay for their profligacy.
Introducing Rickie Lambert and Steven Davis certainly helped. Lambert was last season's top scorer in the Championship, and his introduction made an immediate impact, terrifying the City defence and giving Southampton a real boost going forward. That said, what happened next was still a surprise. A loose ball in Joe Hart's box looked like a half chance until Lambert got there, blistering a first-time shot past the keeper to make it 1-1.
It was a stunning goal, and there was better to come from the visitors. Less than ten minutes later, City new boy Jack Rodwell gave the ball away in midfield, and a fast break from Southampton led to another goal, which was eventually slotted home by Davis. The midfielder, not the goalkeeper. That would have been weird.
At any rate, City had to reply, and they did so more or less immediately. Dzeko managed to find some space on a corner kick, and the ball broke kindly for him to rocket a shot past Davis (the goalkeeper) to draw City level. Then Nasri capped off an excellent match by taking advantage of a really awful mistake from Danny Fox -- the left back turned a cross going out of play into a cushioned pass to the unmarked City man -- volleying into the top corner to give the hosts another lead.
They were able to hold this one, but it was touch and go. Fair play to Southampton, who came to one of the most difficult grounds to win on in the league and more than held their own. City won't be pleased with the performance, but three points are three points. As for the neutral... well, that was pretty fun, wasn't it?