Roberto Mancini can afford no more slip-ups.
It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that one more slip-up could end Manchester City’s title challenge.
It’s certainly difficult to foresee Manchester United throwing away a big lead for the second season in a row.
Mauricio Pochettino’s appointment at Southampton was intriguing. He has shown since that he doesn’t lack confidence when he played four attackers at Old Trafford. Last Weekend, only Shaun Maloney’s late strike denied him what would’ve been an impressive win at Wigan.
Still, they have hauled themselves out of the relegation zone following a run of just one defeat in seven league games.
City have less points, less goals and a worse goal difference than they had at this stage last season. And while they haven’t lost since Dec 26th, two successive draws have given Manchester United what could be a decisive nine-point lead at the top.
The absence of Vincent Kompany, Edin Dzeko’s potential selection instead of Carlos Tevez, and young Luke Shaw’s battle with James Milner are some of the key battles to look at in the build-up to Saturday evening’s game.
The former Espanyol boss has made a quietly impressive start at Southampton.
It’s sometimes easy to disparage Mancini on the basis that he has a huge budget with which to work. However, Real Madrid have churned through enough managers over the past decade to disprove the theory that money automatically leads to success.
The City manager deserves credit for provoking a reaction from a highly-paid bunch of footballers who looked to have thrown the title race when they lost to Arsenal in April last year. It’s particularly impressive when one considers the difficult personalities he had to assimilate into his squad.
When Pochettino arrived at Southampton, there was a presumption he would be the target of Southampton fans’ unhappiness after the sacking of Nigel Adkins. That never transpired, however, and there was more intrigue than invective when he strode the St Mary’s line for the first time.
The results since have been steady rather than spectacular. Alex Ferguson often damns teams with faint praise, but there was certainly an element of truth in his assertion that Southampton gave United as real a test as any side have at Old Trafford this season.
The tactical battle on Saturday evening will be intriguing. If Pochettino gets the better of the Italian, City’s title chances might be well and truly gone.
James Milner is enjoying a fine season for City.
City don’t really deploy wingers, but Milner is the exception. Last weekend against Liverpool, he was his usual metronomic, perpetual-motion self. Given space, his crosses can be lethal.
He popped up on the left to set up Dzeko for City’s opener and Shaw will have to vigilant to close down the same space on the right. That could be tricky for the 17-year-old because Milner is equally as capable at firing in crosses from 40 yards out as he is closer to the end-line.
And, as he showed at the Emirates against Arsenal, when he steals in behind the defence he can finish with quality.
Left-back Shaw is following in obvious footsteps, and looks a remarkably composed performer. His ascent is all the more impressive because it’s happened in the Premier League; Gareth Bale, on the other hand, came to prominence in the Championship.
Pochettino favours working in an environment where the club brings through its own players. Shaw will, therefore, be well-drilled to deal with the potential threat of Milner.
Javi Garcia has replaced Nigel de Jong.
For all the quality in City’s expensively-assembled squad, their central midfield options are weaker than what one would expect of defending league champions.
Both Gareth Barry and Javi Garcia lack wit and inventiveness, satisfied to shuffle the ball to more creative colleagues like David Silva.
There is the sense that City are coasting this term, as if they’re happy with one Premier League title. That view is reinforced when the thrust and pace Yaya Toure injects from midfield is absent.
Since the Ivory Coast player left for the Africa Cup of Nations, his side has fallen nine points behind Manchester United. Given, they haven’t lost, but at this stage of the season four points dropped against two sides they would’ve expected to beat isn’t enough when United keep winning.
At the same stage last year, City had 60 points. However, even the 89 points they finished on wouldn’t be enough this season to put them ahead of United, who are on course to accrue 94. In other words, City needed to progress; instead, they’ve regressed.
Toure will improve them when he returns, but a Southampton midfield three could exploit City’s cumbersome duo on Saturday.
Carlos Tevez helped spark City's recovery last season.
During the title run-in, Gary Neville said Ferguson always emphasised the importance of goals even when the game was won. The United manager dreaded potentially losing a title on goal difference. The signing of Robin van Persie addressed Ferguson’s greatest fear.
Last season, City averaged almost two-and-a-half goals a game and finished with a goal difference of 63 goals. Currently, they average 1.9 goals per game and if the title comes down to goal difference again, it will be Mancini’s side losing out.
It’s odd that the City manager has sidelined Carlos Tevez so often this season. Aside from his energy and drive, it was his return after exile against Norwich City that gave momentum to City’s recovery. He scored a hat-trick at Carrow Road and, when he is partnered with Sergio Aguero, the duo are almost unplayable. In the least, they don’t let up on any opposition defence.
Southampton centre-backs Maya Yoshida and Jos Hooiveld are not blessed with exceptional pace, and would arguably prefer to face Dzeko rather than Tevez.
Vincent Kompany will be a big loss for City.
Pochettino eventually changed tactics at Old Trafford, but he might decide to unleash a three-pronged attack on City.
Vincent Kompany might not be playing as well as he was last season, but his presence is key in stabilising City’s back four.
There was a moment last weekend that highlighted the deficiency in the home defence: Daniel Sturridge easily beat Matija Nastasic on the left and crossed for Luis Suarez who should’ve done better than skew an effort away from goal.
Jay Rodriguez and Jason Puncheon have the ability to expose similar frailties. As well as his physical presence, Kompany’s organisational skills and leadership are irreplaceable.
In addition to the threat out wide, Rickie Lambert has scored a goal every two league game and is excellent from set-pieces. Nastasic and Joleon Lescott both have a tendency to lose concentration and will be under pressure at St. Mary’s.
Follow John Kelly on Twitter @JKelly1882