It was as if the last three eventful sporting months — an Olympic Games for the ages, a European Championships for England and Ireland to forget — had never happened.
Ninety-eight days after Roberto Mancini’s Manchester City were crowned champions of England via a come-from-behind, heart-testing 3-2 victory over a QPR team fancied to go down, here they were back at the Etihad, struggling again to kill off supposedly inferior opposition before prevailing by the same scoreline.
In May, it was Sergio Aguero who scored the title-winning third goal for City — this time, Samir Nasri — but, to spoil the champions’ post-match celebrations, Aguero’s role this time was limited to the opening seven minutes before he twisted his knee awkwardly in a fair challenge from Nathaniel Clyne.
Aguero was taken to hospital for scans last night amid initial fears he may have damaged knee ligaments, his potential absence having a huge bearing on Mancini’s transfer activity in the final 10 days of the window.
“We don’t know at the moment, we need to wait maybe two days to get the scans,” said Mancini. “I am worried, yes, but we don’t know yet. At the moment, we can say nothing. This can happen in every game, it is clear that you can be lucky through the year, but today it is a problem.
“If it is a serious injury, we will probably change our plans. Maybe he is out for a week, or three or four weeks, or after the international break.”
There were more concerns for Mancini, not least the fact his team could leak two goals against a side that, this time two years ago was kicking off the campaign in League One and which came to the Etihad with just three players who had previously appeared in the Premier League.
Yet, after David Silva had missed an early opportunity to settle City nerves from the penalty spot, Carlos Tevez’s 40th-minute goal looked to have put the champions well in command.
That did not factor in goals from substitutes Rickie Lambert and Steven Davis, both finding the target within minutes of their appearance, which put Southampton in front and left City requiring late heroics from Edin Dzeko and Nasri, after 80 minutes.
The impressive Tevez looked marginally offside as he chased Nasri’s through ball before the interval, beating goalkeeper Kelvin Davis low at the foot of his near post with a clinical finish.
It was just the sort of finish that City had needed after 16 minutes, and a blatant trip on Tevez by Jos Hooiveld. Silva took the resulting spot kick but his woeful effort was struck directly at Davis and Danny Fox cleared up the rebound.
City’s opening goal put the Blues well in control, with Dzeko and Tevez testing Davis before the half-time whistle and Dzeko, Gael Clichy and Silva all wasting hugely promising opportunities after it.
The growing misses looked like proving costly just before the hour as Lambert, surprisingly left out of Nigel Adkins’ starting line-up, was on the end of an enterprising Saints move involving teenage debutant James Ward-Prowse. After a Guly do Prado shot was blocked by Joleon Lescott, the ball was worked back to Lambert who coverted from 15 yards.
The goal stunned City supporters, especially those mindful of their last visit to the stadium, and after 67 minutes Adam Lallana led a concerted counter-attack from the Southampton half deep into the City area. After his progress was blocked, Lallana neatly played the ball back for Davis to convert into the bottom right-hand corner from just inside the area.
Southampton needed to hold that one-goal advantage but could do so for only five minutes before a half-cleared corner reached Vincent Kompany on the edge of the area, the defender’s shot being blocked and stabbed at by Yaya Toure before Dzeko was able to sweep in from six yards.
As it had three months ago, a City winner now appeared inevitable. Mario Balotelli missed at the far post, Yaya Toure’s blistering free-kick was parried by Davis and Dzeko glanced a header just wide as the pressure mounted.
Finally, Clichy’s left-wing cross was not dealt with properly at the far post by Fox and his wayward header fell kindly for Nasri, who was clinical from a dozen yards.
MAN CITY: Hart 6; Zabaleta 6, Kompany 5, Lescott 7, Clichy 6; Rodwell 8, Y Toure 7; Silva 5 (Balotelli 71, 6), Aguero (Dzeko 14, 6), NASRI 9; Tevez 8 (Kolarov 87).
Subs not used: Pantilimon, Savic, de Jong, Milner.
SOUTHAMPTON: Davis 8; Clyne 8, Fonte 6, Hooiveld 6, Fox 6; Ward-Prowse 7 (Davis 65, 6), Schneiderlin 6, Lallana 7; Puncheon 6 (Sharp 85), Do Prado 6, Rodriguez 7 (Lambert 54, 9).
Subs not used: Gazzaniga, Richardson, Shaw, Seaborne.
Referee: Howard Webb 7.
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