It had hardly been a wobble for Manchester City. A couple of 0-0 draws, the first against Sporting in a Champions League tie that was already sewn up; the second at Crystal Palace in the Premier League. But when the club give their critics so little ammunition, anything will be seized upon, particularly with Liverpool so remorseless, hoovering up the space behind them in the league.
This was a brutal flexing of City’s authority, a step into a fifth FA Cup semi-final in six seasons under Pep Guardiola, the manner of their surge to victory in the closing stages taking the breath.
Southampton had been game opponents and the substitute Che Adams had a golden chance for 2-2 in the 74th minute only to shoot too close to Zack Steffen after good work from Mohamed Elyounoussi.
City responded as if they had been personally confronted. Guardiola had introduced Phil Foden and Riyad Mahrez as substitutes after the hour and now they turned the screw. Foden’s goal for 3-1 was a shot of vicious power, the ball exploding off his left boot from the edge of the area to zip past Fraser Forster and, when Mahrez lashed inside the near post minutes later, some of the Southampton support made for the exits.
They missed Mahrez and Raheem Sterling blowing glorious late chances as their team fell apart. It is one thing to match the City machine for the majority of a contest. Quite another to do so over the duration. Southampton had dreamed of a third FA Cup semi-final appearance in five seasons. It was ugly waste with the minimum of ceremony.
These are discombobulating times, geopolitics casting a shadow over the sport we love, and the City support have had to process the deeply uncomfortable sight of their owner, Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan, welcoming the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, to the UAE on Friday. Chris Bryant has questioned whether Sheikh Mansour is a “fit and proper person to be owning a football club,” saying it would be “good to see the back of him.”
The game goes on. It always does. The focus of Guardiola and his City players was on the pitch and they took a grip on the tie after 12 minutes when Raheem Sterling made the breakthrough. It was horribly soft from a Southampton point of view, Jack Stephens getting his feet into a tangle and fluffing an attempted clearance inside his area, but sympathy from City was nonexistent. Gabriel Jesus collected the ball, moved it to Sterling and his shot deflected off Tino Livramento to beat Forster.
Southampton blinked into the sunlight. Moments earlier, they had been inches from taking the lead, the width of the far post standing in the way of Adam Armstrong. Now they had it all to do. Armstrong’s chance followed a sharp run on to an excellent Oriol Romeu through-ball and he pulled his shot past Steffen and towards the far corner. The calculations were only marginally awry.
Before that, Sterling had sliced a shot from a tight angle after an Ilkay Gündogan surge and the first half rattled along at pace, both teams committed to getting on to the front foot and zipping the ball about.
Southampton deserved the equalizer in first-half stoppage time for their positivity, as much as anything else. With Shane Long and Adam Armstrong setting the tempo from the front, they pressed high and Livramento was a threat when he drove forward from right-back. Adam Armstrong had snatched at a presentable shooting chance on 24 minutes and it was his namesake, Stuart, who sparked the move for 1-1, although the goal was colored by extreme good fortune.
Running on to the pass up the inside-right, Elyounoussi saw Steffen leave his line and then retreat; stuck in a kind of no-man’s land. Elyounoussi went for the cut-back and watched the ball hit Ayermic Laporte and spin into the net.
Now it was City’s turn to wonder what was going on and, when the half-time whistle went, Kyle Walker blasted the ball out of the stadium in frustration. His team had been so close to going 2-0 up in the 27th minute when João Cancelo beat Livramento to cross for Gündogan only for his first-time effort to come back off the post. Rodri also whistled a shot wide from distance.
It remained fast and furious in the second half and perhaps Mohammed Salisu was momentarily scrambled by the intensity of it all. It was a poor decision from him to stretch into a tackle on Gabriel Jesus as the City forward ran up the right-hand side of the penalty area because the danger was not pronounced.
Jesus pulled a stop-and-go move, Salisu went into him and he felt as though the air had been sucked out of the stadium. Mike Dean’s penalty award was correct and Kevin De Bruyne jammed the kick into the bottom corner, Forster narrowly failing to get his hand down in time.
Could Southampton respond again? After Mahrez had spurned a volleyed opportunity, Adams got on the end of Elyounoussi’s cross to raise the hopes of the home crowd. When he could not finish, City moved up through the gears.