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Manchester City scraped to a narrow 1-0 win at Burnley to return to the top of the Premier League.
Manchester City scraped to a narrow 1-0 win at Burnley to return to the top of the Premier League.
ESPN FC’s Craig Burley says that despite the tight scoreline, Manchester City were in complete control even if their attack wasn’t firing on all cylinders.

BURNLEY, England — It would be appropriate, after such a relentless chase between Manchester City and Liverpool, if this season’s title race was won by the slimmest of margins. It would feel impossibly cruel, too. How hearts must have sunk on Merseyside when, after feeling his wrist watch vibrate, referee Paul Tierney signalled Sergio Aguero‘s scruffy close-range effort had crossed the line; it had beaten Matt Lowton’s desperate lunge by a mere 29.51 millimetres and Jurgen Klopp will not need to be told that moments like these have a habit of being decisive.

In a fortnight’s time Klopp might be looking back, too, at the moment in January when the two contenders met and John Stones, stretched to the limit just like Lowton, hooked the ball away from the line when nine-tenths of it had crossed. In the days before goal-line technology, when officials often had to rely on instinct and — although they would not say it — even guesswork, perhaps the two decisions might even have been reversed. Justice has clearly been done, but never can the tiniest of distances have felt as huge as it did to the City contingent here.

“I didn’t know [it was a goal],” Pep Guardiola said. “Without technology maybe it is not given. There was a penalty not given [for a possible handball by Ashley Barnes] but that is why I like it. Nobody gives us anything in two seasons.”

Not that City expected anything for free at Turf Moor. Last season they had been pegged back to a 1-1 draw here, although that proved far less consequential to their title hopes than any stumble on Sunday might have done. It did mean, though, that the sound of lips licking around Anfield was audible. This had all the ingredients to be another upset; at this stage of the season, in truth, it probably needed to be one.

Instead City weathered a few awkward early moments, shut out Klopp’s suggestion from Thursday that this would be a particularly tricky assignment, and saw the job through. It was an afternoon for calm, experienced heads, and Guardiola was left purring over the way they had mastered the occasion.

“I was so delighted with the way we controlled [Burnley],” he said. “We didn’t concede one corner; we conceded few chances. It is not easy against them because they defend [with] 10 players in the box, but we did it.”

In the first 20 minutes, it seemed Vincent Kompany might be in for a titanic battle against Barnes, who scored against Chelsea on Monday and has a penchant for slaying the big guns. But Kompany ended that tussle well on top, and Aguero, who barely had a sniff in the first half, got stronger too. The winning goal was Aguero’s 20th of the Premier League season; he has now achieved that feat five years in a row, and Guardiola, perhaps wrapped up in the significance of this latest contribution, was fulsome in his appreciation.

“A legend,” Guardiola said of his centre-forward. “He does that all the time, important goals.”

Raheem Sterling and Bernardo Silva misfired, Aguero was the man to settle the nerves. It is no coincidence, either, that even after Guardiola had brought on both Stones and Nicolas Otamendi to weather any late Burnley storm, Kompany was still the man rising to win headers. City keep on keeping on, but none of that would be possible without the contributions of experienced stars who, at various moments in Guardiola’s reign, have seen their futures questioned.

In truth, that Burnley rally never really materialised, a couple of set pieces aside. City could enjoy running down the clock in a manner more associated with their hosts — a fact pointed out, in humour rather than malice, by Sean Dyche afterwards.

“I saw Pep Guardiola with my own eyes, and heard him, screaming ‘Get it in the corner,'” Dyche said of those latter moments. “Sometimes they have to do it as well, and today was one of those times. It was just really refreshing. There were a few moments in the second half where you saw the game slowing down. I have got no problem with it. They are a top side, but they still have to do the details.”

And the fact that City do — to the very last millimetre, as it turns out — explains why it will take some turnaround to stop them retaining the title now.

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