Riyad Mahrez and Kevin De Bruyne turned in individual masterclasses amid an otherwise uninspiring performance from Manchester City who beat Southampton 5-2 at the Etihad Stadium on Wednesday.
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The victory sends Pep Guardiola’s side 14 points clear of Manchester United atop the Premier League table. After losing 2-0 to the Red Devils on the weekend, Wednesday’s result restored order and a sense of superiority for the champions-to-be.
Southampton, meanwhile, remain 14th in the table, seven points clear of the relegation zone with 10 games left to play — probably safe, but a little too close for comfort.
3 things we learned: Manchester City - Southampton
1. Hardly at their best, hardly mattered: By their own ridiculously high standards, Manchester City were, dare I say, average in the first half; anything but dominant, to be most kind. And yet, the score after 45 minutes was 3-1 thanks to goals in quick succession not long before the whistle. To put it simply, Manchester City are an incredibly impressive, well-oiled machine and it almost doesn’t matter who they come up against or what ideas they bring to the party, because eventually Man City will have their way.
2. Mahrez, De Bruyne rounding into form at critical time: If Manchester City are to go on and achieve their ultimate goal — winning the UEFA Champions League — they will need more of these performances from Mahrez and De Bruyne, both of whom were almost individually unplayable for periods on Wednesday. Mahrez looked like he had the ball on a string as he walked it wherever he wanted for his goals. If Guardiola can pair Man City’s typical defensive dominance with that kind of attacking genius for just a couple months this spring, the quadruple begins to look more and more realistic.
3. Final score harsh on Southampton, for once: Saints have done themselves very few favors this season — especially in the new year — with regard to standing tall in the face of adversity. In short, Ralph Hasenhuttl’s side has tended to collapse at the first sign of trouble, but that was hardly the case against Man City. Southampton hit Manchester City back twice and had another superbly taken goal ruled out for offside. These were welcome signs of life that should be of far greater use against just about any side in the world not named Man City.
Manchester City’s opener came via a slick piece of build-up in the 15th minute, when Oleksandr Zinchenko found Phil Foden near the penalty spot. Foden’s shot was saved by Alex McCarthy, but De Bruyne saw the rebound before anyone else and put it away for 1-0.
Southampton threatened an equalizer in the 23rd minute. Nathan Redmond weaved through a sea of sky blue shirts before curling a bouncer toward the far post. Ederson was quick to get down and to his left and push the ball around the post.
Seconds later, the ensuing corner kick forced an acrobatic save from Ederson to deny a header from close range, only for Aymeric Laporte to pull Jannik Vestergaard down as he went for the rebound. James Ward-Prowse hammered home from the penalty spot to make it 1-1.
Southampton couldn’t quite make it to halftime on level terms, though, and Mahrez made it look simultaneously fantastic and easy. Che Adams’ misplaced pass was pounced upon by Mahrez, who picked out the bottom corner from the edge of the box with pinpoint precision.
Mahrez nearly made it 3-1 last in first-half stoppage time, but the honor went to Ilkay Gundogan instead after Mahrez’s shot was saved by McCarthy but again spilled back into play.
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Mahrez got his second goal 10 minutes into the second half, and it was another wonderfully worked chance taken with the precision of a true marksman. The Algerian danced around the penalty area until finally he found the sight of goal he liked most and put another left-footed strike past McCarthy.
Southampton immediately hit back through Adams, who knew very little about the deflected pass that eventually found him in front of goal, but the Saints striker dispatched the chance with ease to make the game interesting again — briefly, at least.
Goal no. 5 — De Bruyne’s second — rivaled Mahrez’s masterpieces in terms of composed control and patience. The phrase “danced past and through a sea of defenders” hardly does the Belgian’s slaloming movement justice. The finish, by comparison, was elementary.