This was an intriguing night. The game itself wasn’t particularly memorable, but there was a plethora of subplots at play even before kick off; it was Simon Davies’ first game in charge of the EDS since Vieira moved to New York, there was the surprise inclusion of Kelechi Iheanacho and Patrick Roberts in the starting eleven, plus the bench contained Erik Sarmiento, a Spanish youth international signed in the summer from Espanyol yet to make his debut. Will Patching started in midfield too, unexpected given the u18s’ FA Youth Cup game tonight. The game itself was so-so, an indifferent performance with sporadic moments of individual quality, and it was a scoreline that, in truth, flattered City. Nevertheless, City did start brightly. Bersant Celina reveled in the movement of the experienced front three of Roberts, Iheanacho and Faupala. He played some lovely passes early on, notably picking out Patrick Roberts who was wasteful when played through. It was the Kosovan that broke the deadlock, and it was a peach too. Some nice intricate football saw Iheanacho roll the ball back to Celina twenty yards out, and he placed a perfectly curled shot into the far right corner. The second came courtesy of some neat work down the right, Roberts freeing Iheanacho in the area who squared for Faupala who turned six yards away from goal and finished well.
GOAL: #MCFC U21s 1-0 #SaintsFCU21s (Bersant Celina 12) The hosts take the lead at the Etihad Campus. #saintsfc NbvEY082Ov
— Southampton FC (@SouthamptonFC) December 14, 2015
It should have been a stroll from that point, but some sloppiness and a lack of focus invited Southampton back into the game. After a few half chances had gone begging, usually from problems of City’s own making, the away team pulled one back. A late and high challenge lead to a penalty and the Southampton forward, Ryan Seager, sent Angus Gunn the wrong way on the stroke of half-time. The second half was a relative non-event. Southampton had some decent moments, and perhaps should have equalised. The combination of Angus Gunn and Pablo Maffeo frequently came to the rescue, sparing the blushes of their teammates around them who were far too generous in possession. Eventually City confirmed the three points. Angus Gunn brilliantly set Kelechi through on goal, launching it over Southampton’s backline and the Nigerian international got to the ball first before lifting the ball over the onrushing keeper. Southampton’s defender seemingly recovered to clear it, but it fell straight to Patrick Roberts who drilled home clinically. It distinguished any real hope that the visitors had of grabbing a (probably deserved) equaliser.
Maffeo was the standout. Positioned at centre-back, he was simply outstanding as he strolled out of defence like a seasoned pro, and made he countless excellent last ditch tackles too. How he hasn’t made his first team debut yet is beyond comprehension. He just exudes composure and class and he frequently swept up the messes caused by those around him. Plummer was sadly very poor, looking lost and far too hesitant, likewise Smith-Brown who had a day to forget, though he was offered little cover ahead of him from Faupala. Horsfield was functional at right-back, though he’s another that perhaps isn’t currently quite reaching the level that City demand from their young talent. Gunn behind them made a few excellent saves and was the instigator for the counter attack that lead to the third goal. He remains a brilliant prospect, another surely set for first team football somewhere sooner rather than later. Celina was the pick of the bunch in midfield, though he did fade in the second half. He was at his silky best early doors, dictating proceedings as he went hunting for the ball. His finish was typically Celina and technically perfect. It was a quiet outing for the u18 regular, Will Patching. Promoted in the absence of the Garcias and Bryan, he did little wrong, though mainly just kept things ticking over alongside Glendon without ever really exerting his authority on the game.
Kelechi had an odd game. At no point brilliant, and in truth on the periphery for most of the game, yet he still technically claimed three assists. Not something to be shirked at, I guess. It was great to see the forward involved though. That match sharpness is essential. Sporadic appearances for the first team are fine for his development, but games are crucial. Patrick Roberts being the clearest example – the winger had a pretty poor game. He scored, but very little came off as he ran frequently into traffic or misjudged passes. He needs games, it’s clear. He’s a wonderful talent, but one that clearly feeds off confidence, and that doesn’t come from sitting and watching in the stands. The u19s games are far too infrequent to have any real effect. He can still be with the first team and get minutes at this level. Likewise Kelechi. Hopefully this wasn’t a one off for both. Faupala grabbed a goal in a mixed performance. A strong, direct runner – he offered an outlet initially before fading as Southampton found their way back into the game. There was a debut for the new signing, Erik Sarmiento too. He only grabbed ten minutes at left-back though and it was hard to gauge anything of note, though he did whip in a couple of nice crosses. Sinan Bytiqi finally made his long awaited comeback too, and he looked strong and industrious as he tried to make things happen. Intima came on with little time to make impact as the game wound down. Overall, it was a decent three points, if a little unsatisfying. Thankfully, Simon Davies agreed. Next up is the FA Youth Cup, later on tonight. A full preview should be online just before kick off.