What a difference a week makes for Nathan Jones. Seven days after the Southampton manager left the pitch with boos ringing his ears after losing the bottom-of-the-Premier-League clash against Nottingham Forest, an inspired performance capped by goals from Sékou Mara and Moussa Djenepo, who scored with a spectacular chip, knocked the wind out of Manchester City’s sails on a blustery night on the south coast.
For Pep Guardiola, who was aiming to become the first manager to win the League Cup five times and move ahead of Sir Alex Ferguson and Brian Clough, it was a night to forget as Kalvin Phillips made his first start for a City side that never really looked like finding a way back into this game after falling behind. This time Jones, having now won three times in cup competitions despite having failed to pick up a point from his four league matches, was afforded a standing ovation from the delighted home supporters at the full-time whistle. Newcastle await in the semi-finals.
“I believe I’ve earned the right to be here,” Jones said. “I’ve been questioned at every level I’ve been at but I like to respond.”
The former Luton manager admitted this week that he has been struggling to win the fans over after replacing Ralph Hasenhüttl in November but this result will go a long way to persuading them he is the right man for the job. Led by the outstanding former City academy player Roméo Lavia in midfield, Southampton lived up to Jones’s promise that his players would be aggressive from the start and it paid rich dividends as the approach clearly unsettled their illustrious opponents.
But while Guardiola’s first-half experiment with Kyle Walker as one of City’s two central defenders backfired, even the introduction of Kevin De Bruyne and Erling Haaland off the bench in the second half failed to lift the visitors. City have won this competition five of the last seven seasons and saw off Liverpool in the last round but found Southampton’s defence impossible to break down despite dominating possession as usual.
Having survived an early scare when Mohammed Salisu lost the ball to Cole Palmer and Ilkay Gündogan dragged his shot wide, a well-worked corner routine from Southampton forced Stefan Ortega to tip Duje Caleta-Car’s shot around the post. But it was Jack Grealish who was at fault when the breakthrough came midway through the first half, gifting possession to Lyanco and watching on as the Brazilian’s excellent cross was swept home by Mara – his first goal since joining from Bordeaux in the summer.
There was even better to come less than five minutes later. Lavia’s brilliant turn and precise ball found Djenepo just inside the City half but the Mali international appeared to have only one thing on his mind as he expertly chipped the ball over the stranded Ortega from well outside the area. If the home supporters couldn’t quite believe what they were seeing, nor could Guardiola.
A few weeks after criticising Phillips for being overweight when he reported back from the World Cup, the City manager had praised the England midfielder’s “incredible work ethic” in training. So it wasn’t that much of a surprise to see him finally included in the starting lineup 191 days after his £42m move from Leeds, even if the 27-year-old still looked slightly off the pace against the energetic Belgian teenager Lavia.
By contrast, De Bruyne’s impact from the bench was immediate: an inch-perfect through ball played in Julián Álvarez but the Argentina forward could not hit the target. Grealish was then perhaps lucky to escape with no punishment after appearing to shoulder-barge Djenepo off the ball and left the field to a chorus of boos as he was replaced by Haaland.
The withdrawal of a tired-looking Phillips in the 62nd minute meant Guardiola had used all five substitutions with almost a third of the match to play, although it was Southampton who looked more likely to extend their lead when Kyle Walker-Peters dragged his shot wide. The best Haaland could manage was a a half-hearted attempt at a scorpion kick that sailed harmlessly over the crossbar to the delight of the Southampton fans.
Ché Adams did manage to find the net at the other end only for the substitute’s delight to be cut short by the assistant’s flag for offside. But it would only delay the celebrations for a few minutes as Southampton and Jones savoured their triumph in a season that has brought little cheer.