With Liverpool making the trip to the Etihad next on January 3, this was a make-or-break fixture for Pep Guardiola’s side during a shaky spell.
The absences of Fabian Delph and Benjamin Mendy saw Oleksandr Zinchenko brought in among five changes as the City manager rested key men for Liverpool.
Vincent Kompany replaced John Stones, the returning Fernandinho took over from Ilkay Gundogan, David Silva filled the duties of Kevin De Bruyne and Leroy Sane dropped out as Riyad Mahrez was preferred.
Reds supporters hoping for a heroic display from Danny Ings were disappointed as the on-loan striker was left out of Ralph Hasenhuttl’s starting lineup.
Meanwhile, the new boss fielded a weak back line of Matt Targett, Jack Stephens, Jan Bednarek and 18-year-old debutant Kayne Ramsey, which was made to pay early on by Silva.
The Spaniard put City ahead of 10 minutes, directly after a slip-up from Charlie Austin when almost through, but Southampton didn’t give up.
Their response came in the 37th minute, and it came through a mistake from stand-in left-back Zinchenko, who was caught in possession by Pierre-Emile Højbjerg, who stung his former manager with blast into the back of the net for 1-1.
Zinchenko looked to be really struggling as the game approach the half-time mark, and the Saints saw a penalty shout waved off after James Ward-Prowse got in behind the Ukrainian.
And to compound Southampton‘s frustrations, Raheem Sterling’s cross at the other end was diverted past Alex McCarthy via Ward-Prowse’s boot to make it 2-1, then Sergio Aguero doubled the lead with a header from Zinchenko’s cross just before the break.
The second half followed a similar bent, with the Saints forced to sit back in an attempt to soak up the City pressure.
Guardiola withdrew Sergio Aguero with 17 minutes left to play, and Mahrez with seven remaining, but was given a brief scare as Højbjerg launched himself into a red-card challenge on Fernandinho, who was promptly replaced by Kyle Walker.
It was a comfortable afternoon for City, as expected, and the victory reduced the gap between them and the Reds, with the top four looking like this at full-time:
Regardless of the result, however, Guardiola’s side still weren’t at their best: suspect at the back and, at times, too confident in possession, suggesting they could be victims of high-pressing triggers.
The full-backs in particular looked to be a weakness, and it could be that both Zinchenko and Danilo drop out on Thursday.
— Manchester City (@ManCity) December 30, 2018
Guardiola could favour Aymeric Laporte at left-back, as in the Champions League quarter-final first leg against the Reds in April, while Walker could take over from Danilo to provide a more well-rounded option.
Stones, Nicolas Otamendi and Sane could also come in, but the hope will be that De Bruyne remains sidelined.
It was far from the ideal result for Liverpool, but they should remain confident of taking the fight to their title rivals at the Etihad, with this game providing interesting analysis for Jurgen Klopp and Peter Krawietz.
The overriding positive is that, after 20 games and at the end of 2018, the Reds are top of the league and seven points clear of their closest challengers.
Man City: Ederson; Danilo, Kompany, Laporte, Zinchenko; Fernandinho (Walker 86′), Silva, Bernardo; Mahrez (Sane 84′), Sterling, Aguero (Jesus 73′)
Subs not used: Muric, Otamendi, Stones, Foden