City continued their title charge with an emphatic 4-1 victory over Southampton at the Etihad Stadium.
Though the score-line suggests the Blues coasted home, the Saints proved stubborn opponents with the balance of the game only swinging the hosts’ way in first-half injury time when goals from Samir Nasri and Edin Dzeko provided much-needed breathing space.
Yaya Toure had opened the scoring after just three minutes but Ricky Lambert later drew the visitors level – both goals were dispatched from the penalty spot.
It took a late goal from Stevan Jovetic to guarantee three more precious points as the race for the title enters the final furlong – and on Grand National day, City will be hoping there will be a few of the chasing pack who don’t complete the circuit in the coming weeks.
Manuel Pellegrini made just one change from the team that drew 1-1 with Arsenal last week – Aleks Kolarov coming in for Gael Clichy. Liverpool’s current form meant that a respectable draw at the Emirates felt more like a defeat, so there could be no slip-ups against a Southampton side who had won three out of their lprevious four games.
The early kick-off gave the Blues the perfect chance to crank up the pressure on their title rivals, but this game had long been identified as one of City’s trickier run-in fixtures.
The Saints, a bright attacking unit with a more than decent away record and a quartet of England players looking to further press their claims for a plane ticket to Brazil, arrived at the Etihad Stadium with that most dangerous of pre-match mind-sets – no pressure.
Free from the worries of relegation and unable to muscle in on the European spots, the visitors could play with freedom and express themselves with no consequence and Mauricio Pochettino promised his side would come to attack – a goalless draw seemed the least likely outcome of this clash - and just three minutes into the game, City proved as much by taking the lead.
Dzeko drove into the box, dropped his left shoulder and then went down under the clumsy challenge of Jose Fonte – Chris Foy pointed the spot and Yaya Toure tucked away his 22nd of the campaign.
It was the perfect start and just two minutes later, the Blues could – and should – have doubled their lead as Pablo Zabaleta was played in behind the Saints defence and his clever reverse pass found Nasri who placed his shot inches wide.
Southampton, reprieved, responded well and began to cause one or two problems with only the final ball absent from a number of decent build-ups – but the threat was there. However, the visitors – and England – were dealt a major blow when Jay Rodriguez went down in agony as he landed unchallenged from an aerial challenge and was stretchered off to a standing ovation from the capacity Etihad crowd.
City were playing some patchy stuff, but went close to a second again ten minutes before the break when Dzeko’s header from close range kissed the crossbar – it would prove a costly miss.
Saints immediately counter-attacked and Zabaleta’s mis-timed challenge on Jack Cork resulted in the second penalty award of the afternoon - Ricky Lambert made no mistake to make it 1-1 and the Blues once again had work to do.
Then, as the half drifted into added time, the complexion of the game changed dramatically with City scoring twice in quick succession.
First Dzeko’s flick found David Silva – who looked a good yard offside – and the Spaniard’s pass found Nasri who made no mistake from close range and two minutes later, Kolarov’s excellent cross was headed home by Dzeko to give the Blues a somewhat flattering 3-1 lead at half-time – not that anyone in sky blue was complaining!
Fernandinho made way for Javi Garcia at the start of the second-half – perhaps because he’d picked up an unfortunate yellow card – and City were much brighter in every department with Dzeko going close with a powerful drive before blasting the rebound well wide.
The Bosnian was replaced just past the hour by Alvaro Negredo as the Blues continued to look for the fourth goal that would surely settle the game – and the former Sevilla striker should have ended his personal scoring drought when he chased a through ball on goal, but was guilty of over-elaboration and the opportunity was gone - it will come good for him soon, though.
Lambert reminded the hosts the contest wasn’t over with 15 minutes to go as he found space behind the City defence, but he drilled his shot a whisker wide – and had it gone in, it would have made for a nervy final few minutes – but it would be the Blues who had the final say as substitute Jovetic tapped home Jesus Navas’ cross with just under ten minutes remaining to seal the points.
There was still time for Yaya Toure to strike the foot of the post as City ended the game in complete control, but there was to be no fifth on this occasion.
The Blues will now head to Anfield next weekend in confident mood....