Manchester City returned to winning ways with a patchy 3-1 Premier League victory over Southampton as England midfielder Fabian Delph marked his first start for the club with a goal.
On the back of defeats to Liverpool and Juventus over the past week, City responded with a scintillating start to the Etihad Stadium contest and Kevin De Bruyne opened the scoring in the ninth minute.
Delph added a deflected second before the defensive frailties that stained the 4-1 thrashing against Liverpool seven days ago returned to unnerve Manuel Pellegrini’s team.
The injury absences of goalkeeper Joe Hart and captain Vincent Kompany were keenly felt as Southampton asked repeated questions of a ramshackle backline that was punctured when Shane Long, in for the suspended Graziano Pelle in attack, scored a 49th-minute header.
Ronald Koeman’s side looked favourites to score the next goal, but Aleksandar Kolarov smashed home in the 69th minute to ease the tension among an increasingly fraught home support, who had watched star striker Sergio Aguero limp out of the action.
The win returns City to the top of the table, but only a draw in the later Saturday kick-off featuring Leicester City and Manchester United can keep them there.
Raheem Sterling dashed onto Yaya Toure’s flicked return pass in the first minute to force Maarten Stekelenburg into a save and City peppered the Southampton goal during the opening stages.
Driving Manchester rain promised a tricky afternoon for goalkeepers and Stekelenburg could not hold Kolarov’s fifth-minute free-kick, although he did well to grab the loose ball under pressure.
The Netherlands international did not need defenders in front of him to be handing out gifts, but the recalled Maya Yoshida dallied on the ball and was dispossessed by Sterling, who fed De Bruyne for a simple finish.
There were strong suspicions of handball when Steven Davis turned Fernandinho’s header behind on the line, but City’s sense of injustice was short-lived.
The resulting corner was cleared as far as Delph, whose rasping low drive took a decisive deflection into the net.
Virgil van Dijk was the unfortunate Southampton defender, but he almost made amends in the 23rd minute with a spectacular long-range effort that crashed off the crossbar.
There was further encouragement for the visitors when City’s understudy goalkeeper Willy Caballero flapped at a James Ward-Prowse cross before sharply stopping Jose Fonte’s follow-up.
Captain Fonte made way after 35 minutes due to an apparent knee problem, but his team-mates’ improved showing was rewarded early in the second half.
Caballero hesitated under Sadio Mane’s teasing cross and Long headed home at the back post.
The Argentinian keeper atoned for this misjudgement as half-time substitute Dusan Tadic left Martin Demichelis in his wake to draw a save that was followed up by a reaction stop to deny Long on the rebound.
Amid their increasing defensive concerns, City were confronted by the worrying sight of Aguero leaving the action with a knock to the ankle.
His replacement, Wilfried Bony, did much to settle the nerves with a delightful backheel to De Bruyne, who fed Kolarov to thump in his second of the season.
David Silva was rapturously received on a substitute cameo following nine matches out with an ankle injury and Pellegrini will hope the Spain playmaker’s return heralds more assured displays than this.