Southampton signed off 2018 with a performance that featured plenty of spirit and determination, but which ultimately fell short, as champions Manchester City prevailed 3-1 at St Mary's.
Ralph Hasenhüttl’s side gave Pep Guardiola’s title contenders a scare for at least a brief times, but two goals from the visitors in the final minutes of a dramatic conclusion to the first half ended up settling the match.
Having beaten Arsenal here a few weeks back, Saints looked as though they might have a real shot at taking another top-six scalp at St Mary’s when Pierre-Emile Højbjerg slammed home late in the half to cancel out David Silva’s early strike.
But an unfortunate own goal from James Ward-Prowse, who moments earlier had seen a big shout for a penalty turned down, and a Sergio Agüero header put clear water between the teams at half-time, providing City a lead they would not relinquish.
There was more bad news for Saints near the end of the game, as Højbjerg was shown a straight red card for a foul on Fernandinho, leaving the Danish midfielder facing another suspension.
Hasenhüttl made sweeping changes for the game, with six new faces coming in from the side that lost to West Ham on Thursday night.
Headlining them was 18-year-old right-back Kayne Ramsay, who was handed his senior debut, as the Saints boss continued to show significant faith in the club’s youngsters.
Also in from the start were Jack Stephens, Ward-Prowse, Mohamed Elyounoussi, Charlie Austin and Højbjerg, who took up the captain’s armband again after returning from a one-match ban.
It meant Maya Yoshida, Yan Valery, Nathan Redmond, Stuart Armstrong and Danny Ings dropped to the bench, while Jannik Vestergaard missed out altogether.
It was a lively start to the game, with both sides wasting excellent opportunities inside the opening ten minutes to take the lead.
First it was City, with Raheem Sterling alertly dispossessing Stephens deep in the area and laying the ball back to David Silva, who shifted it onto his right foot only a few yards out, only for Alex McCarthy to produce a stunning, one-handed stop.
Saints then carved out their own golden opportunity, as Elyounoussi’s sublime first-time pass from deep curled past the City defence and set Austin clear down the inside-left. However, the striker’s touch was far too heavy, allowing Ederson to race out of his goal and gather before he could get a shot off.
When the game’s next chance came – only a minute later – it would not be squandered.
Bernardo Silva raced to the byline down the right, before playing a glorious ball with the outside of his foot, back into the path of David Silva, who this time saw his side-footed effort beat McCarthy and hit the back of the net.
From that point on, the visitors seized control.
They came close to making it 2-0 on 19 minutes, as a lightning-fast counter saw Riyad Mahrez stride over halfway and drive in-field towards the edge of the area, from where he sent a fierce, left-footed strike just wide.
Soon after, for the second time in the half, Saints were indebted to McCarthy for keeping out City.
On this occasion, it was Sterling breaking into space down the right and squaring for Agüero, but his side-footed effort from six yards was repelled by Southampton’s keeper.
While the deficit remained at one goal, though, Saints were always in with a chance, and they came close to equalising on 33 minutes, as Austin met Ward-Prowse’s corner at the near post with a beautiful, flicked header across goal, only for Ederson to show superb reactions, getting down to his left to get a hand on it and tip it away.
Four minutes later, however, there would be nothing that the City keeper could do to keep Saints out.
Oleksandr Zinchenko took too long controlling a pass 30 yards out while facing his own goal, allowing Højbjerg to steal it away, feint past Vincent Kompany on the edge of the box and slam a thunderous right-footed shot high into the net to bring Hasenhüttl’s men level.
Saints were now very much on the front foot and, with two minutes left in the half, they had a big shout for a penalty waved away.
Stephens played a perfect, angled pass out of defence for the run of Ward-Prowse down the right, with his first-time touch brilliantly bringing the ball under control and taking him past Zinchenko, only for the City defender to appear to bundle him over. Referee Paul Tierney turned Saints’ shouts down, however.
It proved to be a pivotal moment, as the visitors regained the lead in the final minute of the half.
Sterling got to the byline and cut the ball back, with it hitting the unfortunate Ward-Prowse and deflecting past McCarthy at the near post, as a cruel few minutes were completed for the Saints midfielder.
It then got worse for the hosts with the last action of the half, as City made it 3-1, Zinchenko swinging in a cross that picked out Agüero, who nodded past McCarthy.
Hasenhüttl responded by making one change at the break, as Redmond replaced Mario Lemina.
After Højbjerg tested Ederson with a low drive from distance, McCarthy was called into action at the other end, making another fine save, this time from Sterling, after the City attacker had got in on the left side of the box after a one-two with David Silva.
Saints’ second change came on 59 minutes, as Oriol Romeu was withdrawn from the action and Valery was sent on in his place.
Seconds later, Agüero rattled the bar, controlling a pass into the area and spinning to hit a left-footed shot that flashed past McCarthy before deflecting off the woodwork to safety.
The City forward was denied again in the 63rd minute, as Sterling broke down the left and squared for him to slide in at the back post, but Ward-Prowse tracked back impressively to throw himself in the way and divert the ball behind.
The visitors were really pushing again, and Sterling felt he should have been awarded a penalty when he went to ground under Valery’s stretching challenge with 25 minutes left.
Hasenhüttl’s final change of the afternoon followed, as Shane Long was introduced for Austin midway through the half.
With ten minutes left, City came close to adding their fourth, as Mahrez was played in behind, but McCarthy got the better of him in the one-on-one.
Saints' misery was compounded with five minutes left when Højbjerg, only just back from a one-game suspension, was shown a straight red for a tackle on Fernandinho, leaving him facing a further ban.
Shots on target46
Alex McCarthy (GK)
Mario LeminaNathan Redmond (45′)
Oriol RomeuYan Valery (59′)
Pierre-Emile Højbjerg (C)
Charlie AustinShane Long (68′)
Vincent Kompany (C)
FernandinhoKyle Walker (86′)
Sergio AgüeroGabriel Jesus (73′)
Riyad MahrezLeroy Sané (84′)