It is a moment that Che Adams will cherish forever. Making his 30th appearance for Southampton, following his £14m move from Birmingham City last summer, the striker finally scored his first goal for the club and what a goal it was.
Seizing on a loose ball as Manchester City tried and failed to play out from the back, initially through Ederson, Adams sent a glorious chip over the back-pedalling goalkeeper from 40 yards to shape what became a contest of attack versus defence.
City brought the former, dominating the ball, taking up residence in the Southampton half and creating chance after chance. Southampton brought the latter, putting their bodies on the line, throwing themselves into tackles and blocks and relying on their goalkeeper, Alex McCarthy, when they needed him.
City’s Premier League season has felt over for some time; their title defence failed and there being zero danger of them finishing outside of the top four. For Pep Guardiola and his players, the more serious battles lie in the FA Cup, the Champions League and the court of arbitration for sport – where their looming two-year ban from European football will be upheld, reduced or overturned. The verdict is due next Monday.
Southampton, meanwhile, had entered this game comfortably clear of the relegation zone, with one of their biggest challenges being whether they could fire an upturn to the worst home record in the division.
There did not seem to be much riding on the outcome at St Mary’s. And yet it turned into a cracker for the terrestrial audience on the BBC – all the way down to the denouement in stoppage time when Kevin De Bruyne, on as a second-half substitute to save the day for City, stood over a free-kick on the edge of the Southampton penalty area.
Could he find a way through at last? His shot thudded into the wall and so Southampton had the unlikeliest of wins and City their ninth defeat of a chaotic league season.
In many respects, it was the same old story for Guardiola. City committed a lot of errors at the back – Adams made them pay for the biggest one – and, despite their capacity to look good and create, they lacked cutting edge when it mattered. It is a strange thing to say, given they are comfortably the leading scorers in the league, but it has been true many times since last August. “Today was a résumé of our season,” Guardiola said.
Southampton had their moments. Danny Ings timed a run behind Eric García and Aymeric Laporte on 44 minutes to meet Kyle Walker-Peters’s lovely ball in, only to lift high, and Stuart Armstrong forced Ederson to save with his legs towards the end. Adams also snatched at a presentable volley at 0-0 after a slice from Laporte.
But after Adams did beat Ederson in the 16th minute, City pressed hard on to the front foot to turn the game into a siege. The visitors’ most dramatic forward thrust of the first half saw Fernandinho hit a post from the edge of the area, David Silva extend McCarthy with a header on the second phase and Raheem Sterling bend inches wide on the third. On top of that, Gabriel Jesus could not react in time at the far post after João Cancelo had flashed a shot across goal and McCarthy saved smartly from Sterling and Riyad Mahrez.
It was more of the same after the interval. Jesus flicked a header wide from a Mahrez corner and had another saved by McCarthy; David Silva was denied by the goalkeeper at close quarters and a Jesus scissor kick hit Jack Stephens. Then there was a Bernardo Silva shot that deflected inches wide and a gilt-edged headed miss from Jesus. It really was not his day.
Ralph Hasenhüttl had given Adams his first league start since 28 December and everything came together for him when Armstrong robbed Oleksandr Zinchenko. Ederson, some way off his line, had started the City move and Adams knew immediately what he had to do. The execution was perfect.
“If you have a goalkeeper who plays like a libero, it’s normal he will not be in a perfect position if you can win the ball [high up],” Hasenhüttl said. “It was fantastic from Che.”