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It must have felt peculiar at full time for Manchester City, as they left the pitch without the full complement of points in a Premier League game for the first time since October. They failed to extend their winning run to 13 matches but they avoided defeat after Aymeric Laporte headed in a second-half equaliser to open up a 12-point advantage over second-placed Liverpool, who have two games in hand.
Pep Guardiola bristles at suggestions that City have a fourth title in five seasons all but secured and Southampton, who proved challenging opponents, provided the perfect evidence that it may not be a stroll to the finish line after all.
Southampton, who also held City to a draw earlier in the season, were aggressive and their bravery was typified by the heroic performance of Mohammed Salisu, who took a Phil Foden volley square in the face as City tried to turn the screw.
Kevin De Bruyne curled a shot against the woodwork and Gabriel Jesus headed against a post as City searched for a winner but if anything illustrated their frustrations it was the sight of Jack Grealish, who operated as a false nine, waiting in the tunnel after the game for Oriol Romeu, who spent the majority of a lively contest nullifying City’s most recent marquee signing. “They had a conversation and everything is good,” said the Southampton manager, Ralph Hasenhüttl.
Just as City were stamping their authority, they trailed to a game Southampton side that seemed intent on taking the honour of halting a streak in which City had won their previous 12 matches by an aggregate score of 34-7. It was a fine goal, too. Kyle Walker-Peters motored forward from right-back and played a neat one-two with Nathan Redmond, controlling the return pass with his left foot before, with his next touch, stroking the ball into the far corner with the outside of his right boot.
City passed up an opportunity seconds earlier. They shifted the ball from left to right but Raheem Sterling undercooked his pass after spying Kyle Walker on the overlap. Sterling blasted over after cutting inside Che Adams and later he failed to beat Fraser Forster when it seemed inevitable that the Southampton net would bulge. The Southampton fans behind the goal sighed in unison as they watched the ball drop to Sterling at the back post after Romain Perraud missed a clearance, but a sprawling Forster saved with his legs.
Southampton would have doubled their lead on 23 minutes had Armando Broja been onside when the commanding Romeu, who was given his Barcelona debut by Guardiola, played the striker in on goal. Broja crept behind Walker but had strayed a shade offside. The home support were on their feet again five minutes later in anticipation of a penalty when the referee, Simon Hooper, put his whistle to his mouth after Ederson brushed with Broja as the striker surged into the box and on to Adams’s dinked pass, only to award City a free-kick for an offside.
Southampton had no desire to sit on their lead and within a couple of minutes of the restart Ederson pushed a Jan Bednarek header from a James Ward-Prowse corner to safety. Another Ward-Prowse corner soon after caused havoc in the City box and Broja headed against a post from a yard out. Rodri curled a shot on to the roof of the Southampton goal but Guardiola craved more and sent on Gabriel Jesus in place of Sterling. Forster repelled a Foden volley and then came the equaliser that swung momentum in City’s favour.
De Bruyne flighted a free-kick towards the back post, where there was a scattering of dark blue shirts and, unmarked, Laporte powered in a header.
“You know they have more gears than we have and when they switch to the next gear we cannot follow,” Hasenhüttl said, his voice a little hoarse. “It is super tough against them. They find solutions for everything. They push you back on the edge of your box. They never let you breathe. They come again and come again. We get tired and make a few mistakes. In the end you need everything: luck, a super goalkeeper, and a super goal [that] we scored.”
From there, City hogged the ball and probed in search of a winner. De Bruyne dropped a shot wide and could only bite his lip in frustration after rattling the woodwork, and Guardiola rested his hands on his head when Jesus headed against a post with the goal gaping. The fourth official, Andre Marriner, indicated six minutes of stoppage time and Hasenhüttl turned to the fans behind him in the Itchen Stand to ask them to turn up the volume. City would not go quietly – at least five away supporters invaded the pitch after the final whistle as City fans clashed with stewards – but the Saints stood firm.
“Even if we won the game the title would not be over,” Guardiola said. “We played to play good and defend our badge and our people as best as possible and the title will always be a consequence of what we have done. We are the reigning champions and we won a lot in the past and it is difficult to win again and win again; you do not get a lot of sympathy from the others.”