Pep Guardiola reckons Manchester City’s 12-point lead at the top of the Premier League is beyond his expectations, despite the fact that City dropped points for the first time since October as Southampton held on for a hard-earned point at St Mary’s.
Before that good run came to an end on Saturday, City had won 12 games in a row to open up a significant lead above Liverpool and Chelsea.
Following a lovely one-two with Nathan Redmond, Kyle Walker-Peters scored a magnificent seventh-minute opening for Southampton, putting the ball into his path before blasting past Ederson on the bounce.
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With 25 minutes remaining, Kevin de Bruyne curled a free-kick into the head of Aymeric Laporte, who nodded past Fraser Forster to draw the game level.
De Bruyne then hit the post, while Rodri and Gabriel Jesus also hit the crossbar. In the first half, Forster saved a fantastic chance from Raheem Sterling with his legs from close range.
“With the way we’re behaving, I feel confidence for the future as a manager,” Pep Guardiola told BBC Sport.
“Without the ball, everyone pitches in to aid one other. I’m very aware of how difficult this stadium is to play in, given the way they play and how well we’ve performed.”
The outcome provides City’s opponents a glimmer of optimism, since they can both make up ground when they meet on Sunday, though Guardiola insists the title fight is “not done in January” even if his team wins.
Second-placed Liverpool have two games in hand before facing Crystal Palace, while Chelsea, who are now in third place, face Tottenham.
“It’s sometimes difficult for me to understand how they can drop points after one brilliant performance and claim that the race is suddenly open when it was already over,” Guardiola added.
“I’d love to be 40 points ahead of teams like Liverpool and Chelsea in January,” he says. It is, however, impossible in January.
“I wouldn’t say I expected to be in this position with such a large margin.” It’s not particularly large, but it’ll suffice.”
Southampton are now 12th in the Premier League rankings, having gone undefeated in their last eight home games.
The Saints proved to be a stumbling hurdle for Pep’s City
Southampton have made St Mary’s a difficult place to visit this season, losing only one game at home and extending their unbeaten home record to eight games.
Pep Guardiola had acknowledged that his team had a “great challenge” before the game, and it became even more tough when the Saints scored first.
With Oriol Romeu spreading play to the right and Walker-Peters orchestrating a lovely interchange with Redmond before slamming the bouncing ball into the far corner to net his maiden Premier League goal on his 68th appearance, it was a goal City would have been pleased of.
Soon after, Armando Broja finished well after being passed through, and despite being offside on that occasion, the Chelsea loanee continued to be a threat, headed against the post from a tight angle in the second half.
Ralph Hasenhuttl, the hosts’ manager, urged his team to “be aggressive with the ball” and “not park the bus,” with the hosts buoyed by a goalless draw in the reverse encounter earlier this season.
However, they were forced to drop deeper to meet the rising City threat, and when Laporte equalized, it looked like a City winner was on the way.
City had 15 efforts in the second half as they went for their 13th win in a row, but the home side held on to gain a point thanks to a defiant performance from home defender Mohammed Salisu and several superb saves from 33-year-old goalkeeper Forster.
Guardiola’s team is still in charge
City haven’t been at their fluid, free-scoring best in recent weeks, but they’ve kept their title hopes alive with close victories over Brentford, Arsenal, and Chelsea.
Only the second time this season has Pep Guardiola’s team trailed at halftime in an away Premier League game, with the other coming in stoppage time at Emirates Stadium.
On Saturday, however, there would be no repeat, as the defending champions were defeated by a sluggish start.
It took the visitors until the 38th minute to get a shot on target. But when the opportunity arose, Sterling made the most of it, side-footing Phil Foden’s low cross against Forster’s flailing knees from the edge of the six-yard box.
However, Forster was powerless to prevent Laporte’s equalizer, and De Bruyne’s assist means he has now assisted on 12 goals in his last 15 Premier League appearances.
In that time, the Belgian has three assists and nine goals, and he came close to adding another when his curling strike against the post was reminiscent of his winner against Chelsea last week.
In the second half, the video assistant referee conducted a lengthy check for a possible foul on De Bruyne, but the judgment was not a penalty.
It’s a result that brings Manchester City’s extraordinary run to an end, but you have to go back 130 years to find the only team to win 12 games in a row and not win the title in the same season, Preston North End in 1891-92.