Forty-four games in, the Premier League title race did stray dangerously close to becoming an ordeal for Manchester City. For over an hour, it had looked as though they might blink in their staring contest with Liverpool. Something had to give and Pep Guardiola’s players certainly toyed with the emotions of their supporters during those passages of play when they lacked their usual sureness of touch.
Except, of course, this is the team whose supporters like to sing how they will “fight to the end.” The team, lest it be forgotten, that once won the league with the final kick of the season. City even have a bar at the Etihad stadium – “The 93:20”, they call it – to commemorate Sergio Agüero’s contribution on that occasion and here he is, seven years on, still delivering vital goals and showing he is the man for the big occasion.
It finished with Agüero joining Alan Shearer as the only two players in the Premier League era to score 20 times or more in six different seasons. Yet the more important detail relates to what his 63rd minute goal meant for City on a day when the supporters of Liverpool, an hour in, might have dared to think the momentum was about to swing dramatically their way.
Instead, it turned out to be City’s 12th successive league victory, restoring their one-point lead above Liverpool, and if they can extend that sequence to 14 in their last two games by beating Leicester at home and then Brighton, away, there will be nothing Jürgen Klopp and his players can do about it. Agüero, for one, looks absolutely intent on making sure there is not to be another dramatic late twist and, when the story comes to be told of what could yet be a domestic treble for City, a special mention should be made of the drama when he held off James Tarkowski in the Burnley penalty area and swung his left foot at the ball.
It was the first time Tom Heaton in the Burnley goal had not been able to get in the way of City’s goalbound shots. Matthew Lowton blocked the ball on the line and, briefly, play carried on. But there was a reason why the referee, Paul Tierney, felt a buzz on his wristband. It was the goal-line technology letting him know that the momentum of the ball had taken it over the line. Twenty-nine millimetres, to be precise.
Burnley were tough, obdurate opponents and City did not always look like champions-in-waiting, particularly in the first half when there even a few “oles” from the home supporters during their periods of possession. OK, they did not get even up to half a dozen passes before City had the ball back. Yet it was a clear sign that the game was not going in the way that Guardiola and his players would have wanted.
Perhaps they were missing the elegant touches of Kevin De Bruyne. Another theory is they are never quite so slick when Fernandinho is missing. Or maybe it just turned out they were not immune to nerves, after all.
Whatever it was, it was strange to see Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sané play with so little menace on the wings. David Silva was not having his usual influence. Bernardo Silva, such a delightful player, was more effective when he swapped positions with Sterling but there was only a couple of occasions throughout the opening half when Heaton had to save his team. Even then, they were routine piece of goalkeeping rather than real moments of danger.
At one point Oleksandr Zinchenko had the ball at his feet and a moment of carelessness let it run out of play for a throw-in. Not too long afterwards, Sané could be seen waving his arms in anger after Agüero had over-hit a pass to knock it out for a goalkick. Sané had won his place back in the team after a brilliant performance, as a substitute, in City’s win at Manchester United last Wednesday but he was unable to play anywhere near the same level and substituted immediately after the goal.
The best chance of the first half actually fell to Burnley when Kyle Walker lost his footing bringing the ball forward from defence and Jeff Hendrick saw the chance to put Chris Wood through on goal. Unfortunately for Burnley, Wood was not so alert to the possibilities. His touch was heavy and Ederson was quick off his goal-line to avert the danger.
After the break, however, City subjected their opponents to a period of concerted pressure. They ought to have had a penalty when Ashley Barnes jutted out his arm to stop Bernardo’s shot and, at 1-0, it needed a brilliant goal-line clearance from Ben Mee after the substitute Gabriel Jesus had gone round Heaton.
With only one goal in it, there was always a certain amount of danger for the away team. Guardiola even felt compelled to make the defensive move of replacing Agüero and Sterling with John Stones and Nicolás Otamendi. Yet City held on and two more wins will be enough to guarantee the championship trophy remains in their possession.