Distracted City reserves fail to make case for European call
Southampton 4 Manchester City2
Published 02/05/2016 | 02:30
The decision to announce Manuel Pellegrini's departure four months before he leaves was always fraught with risk and it would now be the ultimate irony if his desire to win this year's Champions League were to indirectly cost Pep Guardiola a place in the competition next season.
That is now a distinct possibility, however, with Pellegrini clearly fielding what was largely his reserve team here ahead of Wednesday's semi-final against Real Madrid and being punished with an emphatic 4-2 defeat.
True, Sadio Mane and Dusan Tadic delivered inspired performances for Southampton, who remain in contention for Europa League qualification, but City's defending was collectively dreadful and their basic application was also questionable. Only Kelechi Iheanacho advanced his case for involvement against Madrid when a similarly insipid team performance would surely be brutally punished.
Of longer-term concern is that City are now not only three points adrift of Arsenal in third but also within four points of Manchester United, who retain a game in hand among a relatively inviting series of fixtures to end their season.
Pellegrini's attitude to this match was evident from his team selection and substitutions. Kevin De Bruyne, Vincent Kompany and Yaya Toure were not even in the squad, while Bacary Sagna and Gael Clichy were named among the substitutes. Most bizarre of all, though, was the decision to bring Sergio Aguero, sit him on the bench and then not send him on, even with City still chasing the game and in desperate need of a cutting edge. Of those players who did feature here, only Joe Hart, Fernandinho and Nicolas Otamendi or Eliaquim Mangala are expected to keep their starting place at the Bernabeu.
Ahead of what is arguably the biggest game in City's history, Raheem Sterling, Samir Nasri, Fabian Delph and Wilfried Bony were a particular disappointment. Indeed, Pellegrini was asked specifically about Sterling yet, having praised Iheanacho, he refused to offer even the briefest insight into his assessment of English football's most expensive player.
This had been a 300th Premier League appearance for Hart - only five other goalkeepers have reached that landmark - and it was soon obvious that it would be one of the busier assignments of his career. As well as anticipating the fluid movement of a Southampton attack that was being spearheaded by Shane Long after Graziano Pelle was dropped from the squad, he was also relentlessly being told by the home supporters that his international place is under severe pressure from Fraser Forster.
Southampton were certainly indebted to Forster for a wonderful first-half reaction save after an Iheanacho cross had bounced off Virgil van Dijk and presented Sterling with a wonderful chance.
Hart's main problem was the disorganisation of the defence in front of him, especially with Tadic and Mane constantly roaming into unlikely pockets of space.
Cuco Martina released Tadic behind Aleksandar Kolarov down City's left and the Serb hooked the ball back into the six-yard box for Long to dart in front of Otamendi and put Southampton into the lead. It was a goal that underlined a very apparent difference in basic desire between the two teams and, just three minutes later, the score was 2-0.
Tadic was again the creator, brilliantly dissecting Otamendi and Mangala for Mane to break one-on-one with Hart and finish confidently. The space behind Kolarov had again been ruthlessly exposed. The home side almost went 3-0 ahead but an attempted chip by Jordy Clasie was deflected narrowly over.
City gave themselves a glimmer of hope shortly before half-time when Jose Fonte and Martina missed chances to clear Nasri's cross before Iheanacho headed past Forster.
The visitors also began the second half on the front foot but Southampton have developed under Ronald Koeman into a team equally adept at playing on the counter or controlling possession and they continued to threaten whenever they broke forward.
A Steven Davis corner was glanced goal-bound by Van Dijk, with Hart touching the ball on to his crossbar only for Mane to be following in with Southampton's third. It was a goal that seemed to drain what little spirit City ever had and the score was soon 4-1.
Van Dijk's tackle had broken for Tadic and, with another wonderful through-ball, he again set Mane clear on Hart's goal. Kolarov did not have the pace or positional awareness to shut down the danger, with the midfielder's powerful finish beating Hart at his near post.
There was one further goal for City, with Iheanacho underlining his status as the only real positive from a woeful team performance with a wonderful, curling left-footed shot into the top corner of Forster's goal.
The best way to get into Europe is to be out of Europe, as Southampton hope to prove. This was the perfect afternoon for Saints' pursuit of Europa League football, and it all owed to the distracted minds of two sides still competing continentally.
First Liverpool, caught between two legs of a Europa League semi-final, put up little fight in a 3-1 defeat at Swansea City, leaving them on 55 points. Then Southampton faced a City clearly focused on their big trip to the Bernabeu on Wednesday. Just three men started for City who can expect to do so in Madrid, and the rest of them did not look especially keen to change Pellegrini's mind. Not for the first time this season, City put up no fight when things started to go wrong.
The result pushes Southampton up to seventh in the table, a position which, if Manchester United win the FA Cup, will take them into the third qualifying round of the Europa League. They could even catch West Ham United, currently in sixth, if Slaven Bilic's men stumble over the finishing line.
That would be a very impressive culmination of the season for Southampton and Koeman, who at the turn of the year were in 13th place and heading in the wrong direction. Since then, though, they have lost just three league games out of 16, rediscovered their solidity and their style.
Here, at a loud and impressed St Mary's, they produced a performance of incisive, purposeful counter-attacking, slicing through a Manchester City side with no obvious desire to stop them.
Koeman likes his teams to take the initiative but here he was happy for them to sit back and play on the break, to see what City had to offer. This was a side with eight changes from Tuesday night, certainly a B-team, but they played with no desire to persuade Pellegrini to pick them at the Bernabeu, never mind any commitment to the three Premier League points and the pursuit of third place.
This was a teenage strop of a performance from players who only served to prove Pellegrini right. © Daily Telegraph, London