Manchester City wary of Southampton threat as Pep targets top four finish
Despite a draw and a defeat in their last two away matches, Manchester City are still the second-best in the Premier League when it comes to their form on the road this season. A haul of 31 leaves Pep Guardiola's team behind only Chelsea, the side almost certain to be champions, for the most number of points picked up on their travels in 2016-17.
That should leave the travelling fans quietly optimistic about Saturday's trip to Southampton. Having endured four negative results on the bounce -- as City drew 0-0 with Stoke, 1-1 with Liverpool, 2-2 with Arsenal and then lost 2-1 at Chelsea -- the club got back to winning ways in quite comfortable fashion with a 3-1 success over Hull. Given that spell, the supporters should be feeling content that Guardiola's team still have their top four aspirations in their own hands, as results elsewhere have also been largely in their favour.
Of course, the club should be fighting for the Premier League title and that's rightly a source of disappointment, but it's difficult not to look at a club that's sitting four points clear in fourth and has underperformed against rivals this season as one where the situation could have been a lot worse.
City embark on a run of games where they can have realistic eyes on winning them all between now and the end of the season. It won't resurrect the title challenge, but the manager would be rightly criticised for failing to qualify for next season's Champions League.
The next stumbling block has been a source of pain for the fans in the past, too. Southampton ran riot at St Mary's in 2015-16, coming away with a 4-2 victory against a largely apathetic City team -- though, to be fair to Manuel Pellegrini, he was putting all of his eggs in the European basket. The club's second leg of their 1-0 aggregate loss to Real Madrid was just three days later and, at that point, the Spanish side weren't leading the tie.
The Chilean earned City's only win on the road at Southampton since the Saints returned to the top flight in 2012, however. It was far from easy, as a red card for Eliaquim Mangala heaped the pressure on the visitors in 2014-15, but late goals from Frank Lampard and Gael Clichy rounded off a 3-0 success.
That afternoon was notable for a delightful no-look pass from Martin Demichelis that set up the left-back's goal. That the Frenchman is still the club's main full-back on that side, with Aleksandar Kolarov now considered a central defender, underlines just how much they've stood still in certain areas of the team.
Roberto Mancini's only visit to St Mary's wasn't a happy one, either. The Italian was under pressure in what would turn out to be his final season in charge at the Etihad, having failed to properly defend the Premier League title he'd won the campaign before and having had a number of fall-outs with several of his players.
City's fate that season as runners-up to Manchester United was pretty much sealed when Gareth Barry put through his own goal just after half time in that 3-1 defeat. Mancini's side had been woeful -- Joe Hart was beginning his slump in form, as he dropped a simple shot into the path of Steven Davies for the second goal, while the first came from Barry having squandered possession cheaply.
Edin Dzeko had offered a brief moment of hope just before the break, but Barry sealed the win for the home side with a smart finish at the wrong end. It was a tough defeat to take; it left City nine points off the leaders, having played a game more. United opened a 12-point gap up with a 2-0 win over Everton the next day.
It explains why City fans have more painful memories at St Mary's than good ones -- given the only highlight beyond Pellegrini's was the time Paulo Wanchope celebrated scoring a late goal to seal a 2-0 success there by screaming into a pitchside microphone in 2003.
Even then, though, that victory was City's last in 15 games as Kevin Keegan nearly took the club down into Division One having just moved home from Maine Road to the City of Manchester Stadium.
As Guardiola prepares for the club's latest trip to the south coast, he should be under no illusions that the game will be a comfortable one. The Saints have played their way into some decent form, with just one loss in their last six top flight matches, while City have had a period of looking fragile again after appearing to have solved some of their problems.
The visitors should be looking at Saturday's tie as one that could be the second in a winning run, after the victory over Hull. But inconsistency is the story of their season and the club's history at St Mary's won't make easy reading for the manager.
David Mooney is ESPN FC's Manchester City blogger. Twitter: @DavidMooney