Report of Manchester City 3 Southampton 2
This was the weekend when the Premier League empire struck back against those who decried it as a soulless sporting show.
This was the match that paraded the Premier League at its breathless, competitive best, especially in the second period when the drama jumped from end to end.
Southampton left the home of the champions without any points but with hearts filled with pride and hope.
The Premier League newcomers know that they gave Manchester City a real scare, that their academy has nurtured another prospect in the composed, hard-working 17-year-old James Ward-Prowse and that they can survive at this level if they continue to play with as much belief and counter-attacking power.
But Southampton must start Rickie Lambert, who gave them a real cutting edge when he arrived on 55 minutes.
City were trailing 2-1 with 18 minutes remaining but demonstrated their resilience. Their fans chanted “We’re Man City, we’ll fight to the end”, seeking to summon up the spirit that accounted for QPR so memorably at the end of last season.
Samir Nasri responded, proving the man of the match for his endless creativity and eventual winner.
The Frenchman has not always impressed for City but was a crucial force yesterday, particularly when the talismanic Sergio Agüero departed early on with a knee injury following a challenge by Nathaniel Clyne.
The Southampton right-back was briefly booed but was totally blameless; Agüero just twisted his right knee as he fell.
Roberto Mancini, the City manager, talked afterwards of needing reinforcements. If Agüero has badly damaged his ligaments, City will inevitably again be linked with the likes of Fiorentina’s young Montenegrin striker Stevan Jovetic.
The reinforcing may not end there. In midfield, Mancini gave Jack Rodwell an unexpected debut, starting alongside Yaya Touré, but the City manager’s interest in Daniele De Rossi of Roma remains strong.
The announcer at the Stadio Olimpico declared last night that “De Rossi stays with us forever” while the tifosi chanted abusively about Mancini. Negotiations could be lively.
At least Mancini can reflect on the good form of Nasri and Carlos Tévez. Nasri’s flick released Tévez in to the box and his sudden turn tricked Jos Hooiveld, who brought him down.
It was a surprise that Tévez himself did not take the penalty, leaving it to David Silva. The Spaniard’s effort was poor, allowing Kelvin Davis to make a simple save.
Davis was increasingly busy, denying Tévez, but Southampton still threatened occasionally in the first half.
A free-kick from the excellent Adam Lallana was headed clear by Nasri, who then played the key pass for City’s opening goal five minutes from the break.
Rodwell and Touré combined in midfield, Nasri delivered the ball down the inside-right channel and Tévez was off and running. Outstripping Jose Fonte, Tévez advanced to place the ball firmly between Davis and the keeper’s left-hand upright.
Fonte glared at Mike Mullarkey, the assistant referee, having expected an offside flag. From Mullarkey’s position Clyne could have been playing Tévez on. Tight call.
Until Lambert arrived Southampton were too cautious, dropping too deep and leaving Guly Do Prado too isolated.
City continued to pour forward. Edin Dzeko, who had replaced the stricken Agüero, Gael Clichy and Silva missed good chances.
But then came Lambert, immediately taking his prolific Championship form into the Premier League. He scored within four minutes, exploiting apparent City confusion over referee Howard Webb’s decision not to give them a corner at the other end.
Nasri was standing by the flag, waiting to take the kick, when Webb signalled a goal-kick. Suddenly Lambert ran down the field, Joleon Lescott chasing him.
Southampton swept the ball forward. City managed to get back in numbers but their defence had insufficient time to man the barricade.
The ball flew from Lallana to Guly until half-cleared by Lescott. Ward-Prowse, the son of a Portsmouth barrister, showed real calmness and vision to work the ball to Lambert, whose shot came back off Guly and Lescott.
Lambert then made no mistake, placing the loose ball superbly past Joe Hart.
The visiting fans celebrated with a Poznan. Concern rippled through the home ranks. Such was the rising sense of urgency that James Milner played ball-boy, hurrying up a City throw-in.
Southampton manager Nigel Adkins had another surprise for them, sending on Steven Davis for Ward-Prowse. Davis soon had an impact.
When Rodwell lost possession, Lallana raced 50 yards, laying the ball left to Davis. It was like the Red Arrows flying down the pitch.
When Davis then played the ball into the box, Clichy made an attempt at a clearance but Lallana regained possession for Southampton.
Another member of Southampton’s academy, Lallana rolled the ball back to Davis who stroked it past Hart.
The champions were wobbling but Nasri dragged them back into it. From a Nasri corner, Vincent Kompany fired the ball back in and it reached Dzeko via Mario Balotelli.
Dzeko swept City level. City’s technical class and precision told as Nasri began and finished the move for the winner.
After gliding through the middle, Nasri played the ball left to Clichy and continued into the box. When Danny Fox met Clichy’s cross with a poor clearance, Nasri pounced, firing the ball in before racing away, lifting his shirt and revealing the greeting “Eid Mubarak”. He was booked.
Adkins sent Billy Sharp on, hoping that lightning could strike three times from the bench. Southampton pressed hard. Lescott cleared.
Clichy ran down the clock by taking the ball back to Hart. The champions held on as the Premier League sprang back into life in style.
Manchester City: J Hart, P Zabaleta, V Kompany, J Lescott, G Clichy, J Rodwell, D Silva (M Balotelli, 72), G Touré, S Nasri, C Tévez (A Kolarov, 87), S Agüero (E Dzeko, 14)
Goals: Tévez (40), Dzeko (72), Nasri (80)
Southampton: K Davis, N Clyne, J Hooiveld, D Fox, J Fonte, J Ward-Prowse (S Davis, 65), J Puncheon (B Sharp, 86), M Schneiderlin, A Lallana, G Do Prado, J Rodriguez (R Lambert, 55)
Goals: Lambert (59), Davis (68)