An excellent away performance saw Southampton claim a point and a hard-fought clean sheet at the Etihad Stadium, although a major decision denied the visitors a real chance of victory.
Saints defended diligently, restricted their usually free-scoring hosts and carried a counter-attacking threat of their own, which led to the award of a penalty just after the hour mark when Adam Armstrong was brought down by Kyle Walker.
Referee Jon Moss initially pointed to the spot and dismissed the defender, only to consult his pitch-side monitor and overturn the decision.
Thankfully VAR did come to Saints’ aid after Raheem Sterling pounced at the death, but this time the technology agreed with the on-field decision, and the England man was rightly ruled offside.
Ralph Hasenhüttl is much happier with the depth in his squad this season and spoke in the week about selection dilemmas, vowing to pick “different qualities” depending on the opposition.
For this game against the champions that meant recalls for Jan Bednarek, Kyle Walker-Peters and Ché Adams, as Mohammed Salisu, Romain Perraud and Moussa Djenepo dropped to the bench.
With two natural strikers restored to the Saints attack, the visitors started the game on the front foot, clearly not overawed by the size of the task despite City having scored 16 goals in their three previous home games.
For all the early possession and pressure, chances were in short supply, though James Ward-Prowse sent Ederson scurrying across his line from a cross-come-shot that had the Brazilian worried, albeit the whistle went for an alleged foul in front of him.
City would have to wait until the 21st minute to have a clear sight of goal, as Walker’s cross was headed over by Ilkay Gundogan, who could not control the power on the delivery.
Then Jack Grealish sucked in three defenders and threaded a pass through for Sterling, whose attempted curler from the left flew past the far post.
Suddenly City were beginning to purr, having been second best for the first quarter. Gabriel Jesus traded passes with Sterling and fizzed a low ball across the box that was just beyond the sliding Bernardo Silva.
It would take a brave block from Bednarek to keep out Jesus, whose half-volley looked goal-bound, but the hosts were being restricted to speculative efforts.
Saints’ most uncomfortable moment of the first half was an injury to Jack Stephens 10 minutes before the interval, prompting Salisu’s introduction and an unwelcome defensive reshuffle.
By now Saints were playing more on the counter-attack, with City starting to dominate possession, but one forward raid from Tino Livramento might have resulted in an opportunity for Armstrong had the front man taken a better first touch.
Strike partner Adams did make the ball stick moments later, before feeding Mohamed Elyounoussi to his left, who had a half-chance to curl one inside the far post when he stepped inside, but he could not get hold of the shot.
Saints began the second half much as they’d started the first, forcing City back. When Oriol Romeu pinched possession inside home territory, Adams was free to drive at the defence and let fly from the edge of the box with a low shot that he dragged a couple of yards wide.
It was from a similar ball win high up the field that Saints were on the receiving end of a major talking point.
As Armstrong went through on goal from Nathan Redmond’s pass, Walker stepped across him and did not play the ball, prompting Moss to award a penalty and send off the England defender.
But from finding themselves in a potentially commanding position, instead Saints were stopped in their tracks by VAR, as Moss consulted the pitch-side monitor and overturned his own decision.
Not only were Saints still at 0-0 against 11 men, but now Kevin De Bruyne was summoned from the bench as the game threatened to turn in the opposite direction with 25 minutes to go.
Still City could not find their rhythm, and it was Saints playing the intricate football around the box that led to another chance for Armstrong, but his shot was tame and easily saved.
It would have been so cruel on Saints to lose it, but VAR confirmed that Sterling was offside when he tapped in the rebound after Alex McCarthy kept out Phil Foden’s 90th-minute header.