England player Adam Lallana (right) has become a talisman for Southampton with a string of inspired performances in the league this season. - AFP
THE weekends cannot come soon enough – such is the anticipation of the Premier League fixtures in these final days of the season. For the fans of Manchester City, it is what appears to be a tricky home game against Southampton that has roused the excitement within.
It is so tight at the top of the Premiership standings that anything other than a victory at this stage – for any of the front-runners – will be construed as a setback. Thus, City, who go into the match as favourites to land the title for a second time in three years, know full well that they have got to beat the Saints, if only to keep their noses in front.
This tie, though, is anything but a foregone conclusion. Indeed, Southampton boss Mauricio Pochettino comes to the Etihad in a good frame of mind and his team in some form of their own.
He has got three players who have become the scourge of some of the top sides, having taken points off league leaders Liverpool, City and fourth-placed Arsenal.
Of the top-four, only Chelsea have taken maximum points off Southampton in this campaign.
The English trio of Rickie Lambert up front, sturdy defender Luke Shaw and impressive midfielder Adam Lallana have been in great nick lately and it has shown in their results.
When one brings Jay Rodriguez into the equation, Southampton’s potential grows considerably. The 24-year-old England forward has 15 league goals to his credit this term and is just two away from topping 20 in all competitions.
Notwithstanding this, City know the task at hand will be a trying one and will have no doubt prepared accordingly for it. And if there was one real positive thing going for the home team ahead of the clash, it must be that Sergio Aquero is expected to enjoy some playing time after an injury layoff.
City drew with Arsenal in their last outing, and despite it being perceived by some as being two points dropped, Manuel Pellegrini, City’s Chilean manager, was adamant that it was “a point gained” – given that they were at the Emirates.
There will be no such concession for today’s early kick-off. Southampton must be beaten.
Failure means the initiative in the title race will surely be handed to Liverpool and Chelsea, who are seen as the Citizens’ main rivals to the title and that is not what the plan is at the Etihad.
The likes of playmaker Yaya Toure and the irrepressible David Silva will obviously be called upon to provide the service for Aquero to mark his return to action with a telling contribution.
These two are the midfield kingpins at the Etihad and have largely been responsible for City’s recent run that can at best be described as “in-form”.
Brazilian strongman Fernandinho, along with Samir Nasri, will also be expected to weigh in with performances to consolidate City’s position in the title race.
Vincent Kompany and Pablo Zabaleta, together with Joe Hart in goal, have sturdily held the defence together and they will again be keen on keeping Southampton out in Saturday's match.