Manchester City’s stay in second was brief indeed. Knocked off the top of the table by Liverpool, they returned there with the minimum of fuss.
City can feel natural frontrunners in title races and, once again, they have an advantage. It was earned with unflustered excellence.
If victory at Burnley was impressive simply because, for the first time since December, City kicked off anywhere other than first in the standings, it was also admirable because of the sheer speed with which they dismantled their hosts.
Kevin de Bruyne set City on the road to victory, marking his 200th Premier League appearance for them with a fifth-minute goal. Ilkay Gundogan doubled the lead and that, really, was that. The second half was a soporific affair, but City rendered it simple by sealing victory before Liverpool had left Anfield. “We don’t speak much about our contenders to be champions,” said Pep Guardiola. A message was nevertheless sent.
It had to be. “Hopefully Liverpool is going to lose against us; apart from that I don’t think they drop points,” Guardiola said. “We have to live this pressure.”
They seemed to savour it. In a clash between the division’s stylistic opposites, Guardiola’s purists against Sean Dyche’s pragmatists, the passers prevailed. Rodri gave City a platform to play in midfield, Joao Cancelo exerted an influence on the left and they kept getting midfield runners forward.
Both of their goals were slick moves, with Burnley opened up with ease. The surprise, perhaps, was that there weren’t more: as Burnley have lost their last 10 games against City while scoring once and conceding 34 goals, letting in only two may have felt a bonus.
Nevertheless, given their plight, an insipid display ought to be a cause for concern. Indeed, their day could have been worse. Wout Weghorst should have been sent off for elbowing Cancelo. Burnley could count themselves fortunate their main striker is not suspended for more winnable games against Everton and Norwich. “We have 10 games to go and they are all not against Man City,” said Sean Dyche, drawing such positives as could be derived from a one-sided affair.
Such hope as they had yesterday was fleeting. They threatened first. Josh Brownhill met Aaron Lennon’s cross with a header from the edge of the penalty area that almost flew into the top corner of Ederson’s net. It nevertheless felt a footnote soon after when, amid a flurry of chances, they had two well-constructed goals, assisted by the same player.
“When Raheem Sterling comes back from the national team he is full of confidence,” said Guardiola, who felt the winger was buoyed by captaining England against Ivory Coast. “Today he was decisive in all the decisions.” He was when Rodri chipped a cross to the far post, Sterling laid it off to De Bruyne and he rifled a shot in. De Bruyne and Sterling linked up again for the second, playing a one-two before the winger crossed. Gundogan timed his run in the inside-right channel and his finish, angled below Nick Pope.
There could have been others, with City’s dominance apparent from the off. In particular, their elusiveness of their central midfield trio was. Within 16 minutes, Rodri had twice come close and Gundogan had missed his first chance.
Thereafter, Sterling sliced a volley wide after an inventive pass by Foden and Nick Pope made a fine save from Phil Foden’s backheel flick. The substitute Gabriel Jesus was profligate, hitting the post and then placing the rebound wide. His cameo could have brought a hat-trick.
“It was made more complicated by the fact we couldn’t score the third goal,” said Guardiola but City got the three points.