Plucky Saints were edged out in an exciting five goal contest at the Etihad Stadium.
The club’s first game back in the Barclays Premier League for seven years could not have been marked with a tougher start than a date at the home of the Champions, but on this showing, Nigel Adkins’ men should have little to fear in the top-flight this season.
A valiant display from the visitors which saw them come from a goal down to lead City in the second half, unfortunately went unrewarded as Roberto Mancini’s side found two late goals through Edin Dzeko and Samir Nasri to earn a hard fought win over the newly promoted Saints team.
City, who were unbeaten at home in the league last season took time to get going in the game and when Kelvin Davis saved David Silva’s spot-kick on 16 minutes you sensed Saints’ luck might be in, but a Carlos Tevez strike before the break gave the hosts a lead they looked like holding on to.
That was, until the introduction of Rickie Lambert, who got the visitors back on level terms and his presence was noticeable as Saints went 2-1 up on the Champions when Steven Davis found the back of the net.
Although the party was gate-crashed late on, Saints could take heart from a spirited performance that deserved at least a point.
Man City: Hart, Zabaleta, Kompany, Lescott, Clichy, Y Toure, Rodwell, Silva (Balotelli 70), Nasri (Kolarov 86) Tevez, Aguero (Dzeko 14). Subs (not used): Pantilimon, Savic, De Jong, Milner.
Saints: K. Davis, Clyne, Fonte, Hooiveld, Fox, Schneiderlin, Ward-Prowse (S. Davis 65), Lallana, Puncheon (Sharp 85), Rodriguez (Lambert 55), Guly. Subs (not used): Gazzaniga, Richardson, Shaw, Seaborne.
Referee: Howard Webb (S. Yorkshire)
Seventeen year-old James Ward-Prowse made his first league start, whilst there were also starting roles for summer signings Nathaniel Clyne and Jay Rodriguez, with the latter playing on the left to support Guly through the middle.
Adam Lallana captained the side, taking the armband for the first time in a league game.
Jack Cork was the only absentee from the travelling squad due to the ankle injury he picked up at Bristol City in pre-season.
City handed Jack Rodwell a full debut with the midfielder having joined from Everton earlier in the week.
And it was the hosts who got the contest underway as Carlos Tevez and Sergio Aguero got the season off to a colourful start with the party atmosphere sweeping around the Etihad to welcome the Champions into the new season.
Nigel Adkins’ men however, made an encouraging start to the game with early foray forwards that saw Rodriguez and Lallana combining to win a corner on the left hand side, before some inventive play on the right flank through Clyne and Guly almost created another opening for the visitors.
The composure from Schneiderlin in the centre gave Saints a foothold to break from, whilst Clyne also put in an effective challenge to keep Aguero at bay in the seventh minute.
The City striker succumbed to an injury sustained in the challenge, and once play resumed Saints sticking rigidly to their slick passing game, gave the hosts plenty to think about prior to Schneiderlin’s daisy-cutter of a strike which flew inches wide of Joe Hart’s left post.
City replaced Aguero with Bosnian forward Edin Dzeko and almost immediately drew a chance through the tall forward who set up Nasri, but his effort was blocked.
Cruelly, a penalty was awarded when Hooiveld clipped Tevez inside the area, as the forward cleverly got the better of the Dutch defender.
Spaniard David Silva stepped up, but Kelvin Davis was equal to it for his tenth penalty save as a Saints ‘keeper by producing a brilliant low save down to his left to keep the game goalless, which was no less than the visitors deserved for their start to the match.
As expected, the hosts began to turn the screw with Tevez pulling wide to try and supply his teammates inside the area, with Jose Fonte crucially intercepting crosses from the Argentine and then from defender Gael Clichy as Saints weathered the storm.
Tevez jinked his way through to test Davis with a poked effort on the edge of the area before Fonte again intervened at a critical moment to restrict the home side once more.
At the other end, Fox won a free-kick which Lallana earned a corner from, but the deadlock was broken five minutes before the break with a well worked goal from the hosts even though there was a suspicion of offside about the strike.
Samir Nasri’s lofted pass down the right released TEVEZ into the area, and the striker produced a low shot inside Davis’s near post to give City the lead.
Davis denied both Dzeko and Tevez inside the area as Saints kept a rampant City forward line at arm’s length in the closing stages of the half to chase a one goal deficit in the second 45.
Half Time: Man City 1-0 Saints
With no changes from either side at the break it was as-you-were for the second period with Saints getting the new half underway.
A quieter start to the second 45 was almost awoken by another City strike when Nasri squirmed his way through on the left byline to tee up Dzeko, but a heavy touch from the forward saw the ball end up in Davis’s hands.
The second strike appeared closer when Yaya Toure’s raking pass to the far post was almost met impeccably by Clichy on the run, but the full back skied his effort from close range.
Nasri cut the ball back across to Silva who struck the crossbar as Roberto Mancini’s men continued to press.
The introduction of Rickie Lambert for the visitors followed as last season’s top scorer in the Championship made his Premier League bow, replacing Rodriguez, as Guly moved out wide to accommodate the substitute through the middle.
It was from the right though that Saints produced their next move as Puncheon picked out Lallana in the centre, but the midfielder’s shot on the turn flew wide of the right post.
With Lambert dropping deep, Saints collected possession on the D of the area and interchanged impressively within moments of him entering the field of play.
And less than five minutes after his introduction LAMBERT did what he does best with a neat series of passes including Ward-Prowse, Lallana, and Guly found its way back to the frontman who curled home a sublime strike into the bottom right corner for 1-1.
Buoyed by the leveller, Saints enjoyed an impressive spell of possession, which was firmed up with the arrival of Steven Davis onto the pitch as he replaced Ward-Prowse for the final 25 minutes.
And the second substitution proved to be as inspirational as the first as Saints turned the game on its head in the 68th minute after a strong burst forward from Lallana. Although the move initially broke down, Lallana recovered to find DAVIS on the edge of the box who struck a fierce low drive into the bottom right for 1-2.
City responded with the introduction of Italian striker Mario Balotelli in place of David Silva, and Mancini’s sub had an impact of his own as he knocked down a corner into the path of DZEKO who levelled up from 3 yards out.
A thrilling end-to-end encounter broke out with Puncheon almost immediately restoring Saints’ lead before Balotelli somehow put an effort into the side netting from inside the six yard box.
The Champions began to move through the gears again, with Balotelli forcing a save from Davis on a free-kick as Saints remained resilient to the onslaught.
With Dzeko heading wide from a good position the hosts continued to be wasteful, but with ten minutes remaining City regained their lead when NASRI saw an effort blocked before it rebounded out to the midfielder who blasted home from ten yards out into the top right corner.
Saints refused to give up and another strong break forward resulted in Schneiderlin seeing his fierce shot from range deflected out for a corner before Fonte fired over.
Adkins confirmed his intentions by bringing on Billy Sharp in the closing stages for the hard-working Puncheon, with Saints still keen for another equaliser; and they nearly got it when the third Saints substitute lurked dangerously to try and get on the end of Lambert’s cross, but Joleon Lescott did just enough to prevent him from getting near it.
Schneiderlin went into the book late on as Saints continued to press on for a third goal with the natives getting more and more restless as three minutes of stoppage time were added on.
But Howard Webb eventually blew his whistle with Saints showing the nation they’re back and determined not to just make up the numbers.
Full Time: Man City 3-2 Saints