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City stumped as Saints centre-back Mohammed Salisu looks like the new Virgil van Dijk

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Southampton boss Ralph Hasenhuttl

Southampton boss Ralph Hasenhuttl

Southampton boss Ralph Hasenhuttl

Southampton have twice this season done something beyond the limits of Chelsea, Manchester United, Arsenal and most of the rest of the Premier League: stop Manchester City winning.

After a goalless finish at the Etihad in September, this draw at St Mary’s on Saturday gave pause to City’s relentless victory march. And offered flickering hope to the rest that there are, after all, ways to stop what appears to be an inevitable surge to the title.

Though Southampton manager Ralph Hasenhuttl, joked there was another way of looking at the two draws his team had achieved against the champions-elect. “You could say we have dropped four points against them,” he smiled.

Southampton had not set out
simply to prevent City from playing. They had not parked the bus. They counterattacked with vigour and pace, Kyle Walker-Peters upending all expectation by scoring a superb early goal. But what was more revealing was the manner in which they held onto their lead. This was a model for how the rest of the division might approach playing City.

Although they were marginally less ruthless in their finishing (Raheem Sterling, in particular, might rue the chance he fluffed), there was no indication that Pep Guardiola’s side had gone off the boil. They attacked with their usual relentless drive. They passed and moved with ease. But they found that Southampton presented them with a problem they rarely encounter: a refusal to yield.

Che Adams and Armando Broja provided a muscular threat which stopped the City centre-backs from easily playing out. Oriol Romeu and James Ward-Prowse were a magnificent protective shield for the defence, while Fraser Forster used his extensive frame to block anything that came his way. But it was centre-back Mohammed Salisu who was the epitome of Southampton’s resistance.

He was everywhere as City poured forward, his legs apparently telescopic as he executed a series of last-ditch tackles.

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It was a performance of bravery, dynamism and, more to the point, intelligent reading of the game. Apart from the heart-stopping moment he upended Kevin De Bruyne as he strode into the Southampton area, all of his tackles were perfectly-timed, judged and executed. His blocks, headers and interceptions built to the point his every action was serenaded as if he had scored the winner.

Mind, it had been a while coming. Hasenhuttl bought the young Ghanaian from Valladolid in the summer of 2020 for nearly £11 million. The idea was to slowly integrate him into the Southampton way. And slow was the word: it took him six months to make his debut, in a fifth-round FA Cup tie in February 2021. But this season he has looked what his manager always reckoned he would be: a defender with a footballing brain to match his towering physical presence.

“We always spoke about the long-term project we have with him, give him the time to adapt to our game,” Hasenhuttl said. “And now you see how strong he is and how well-developed we have him.”

Indeed, watching the 22-year-old dispossess Jack Grealish, tackle Bernardo Silva and throw himself into the path of Phil Foden’s fizzing drive, it would not be an exaggeration to suggest Southampton have a prospect as exciting as they once had in Virgil van Dijk. He was that good.

Telegraph Media Group Limited [2022]


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