A monumental miss, however much Manuel Pellegrini tried to dress it up with casual indifference. Manchester City were cruising towards victory, ready to reduce the gulf with Chelsea to a solitary point from the eight points of five weeks ago, and seeking a record 10 consecutive wins, until they threw it away.
Pellegrini was as deadpan as ever, venturing nowhere near the notion that a gulf in investment made the result a shocking one, despite the fact that Burnley are the club who take rejects like Ben Mee and Kieran Trippier from City’s fabulously wealthy academy. But while the quality of a decent, extremely fit Burnley side should not be discounted, this was a dereliction of duty.
When you had heard Pellegrini’s excuses for his side’s drop in intensity – including the heavy Boxing Day pitch at West Bromwich – and then witnessed Sean Dyche’s comments on picking the same side that faced Liverpool and not sending on substitutes, you could see why the afternoon turned out this way.
“Do you know what’s incredible? That people are making that point,” Dyche said. “When I used to play you played the same team if you were playing well. We’ve played seven games less than last year, we’re not in Europe.” Talk is cheap in modern football but Dyche, whose side were also substantially better than Liverpool, is a seriously impressive individual.
His side have the capacity to defy expectation and in Ashley Barnes, whose equaliser was reward for giving City’s midfield the run-around as the afternoon wore on, possessed the epitome of what they have brought to this level. Barnes spent his early 20s on loan at clubs like Salisbury City and Eastbourne Borough. He played for Austria under-20s at that time, courtesy of his maternal grandmother. It was he who drove an equaliser into the top corner from 15 yards, nine minutes from time. “He’s earned and fought for the right to play at this level so why wouldn’t he take his chance?” Dyche said.
This scrambled the narrative of an afternoon in which City had looked capable of winning without their best. Theirs was a team without Yaya Touré – left out because of a groin strain he had felt going into Boxing Day’s game at West Bromwich – Sergio Aguero and Vincent Kompany, but for 45 minutes the spine wasn’t needed. Burnley displayed an initial appetite to put up a doughty defence but it didn’t last too long. It was stars v superstars. Their reactions were a pace slower and they were calmly taken apart. That’s what comes when a painfully small squad, put together on a League One budget, is asked to play five Premier League games in 28 days.
There had been warning signs – desperate blocks by captain Jason Shackell from Martin Demichelis and Trippier from Samir Nasri – before an opening goal which was the product of City having spatial awareness and Burnley lacking much. Nasri weighed up his options, flicked the ball to the advancing Jesus Navas and watched him lay it in to Silva, who was allowed five yards of space to spin and shoot with no Burnley defender aware of his position when he scored. “High quality players doing what high quality players do,” Dyche reflected later.
The second goal, 10 minutes later, was raw power. Fernandinho – for whom this was a particularly dominant afternoon – arrived to unleash his first goal of the season in off the underside of the crossbar from Nasri’s lay-off.
But City are not impregnable. Their defence has lately looked more solid but is transparently vulnerable to the aerial ball and the quality of Trippier’s delivery threatened to expose that. The sight of £40m Eliaquim Mangala slamming his head into Pablo Zabaleta, leaving the Argentine flat out and in need of bandaging, was a metaphor for the chaos which surrounds him. The strong display put in by Demichelis was necessary and Kompany’s return from hamstring and calf trouble is sorely awaited, though this has not been his best season. “He has some problems still in his calf,” Pellegrini said.
The weak foundations allowed Burnley to pull a goal back a minute into a second half for which Pellegrini’s players frankly looked unprepared, having returned to the field. Danny Ings took the ball past Zabaleta and sent in a low cross from the left that George Boyd – fractionally offside – deflected beyond the fingertips of the diving Joe Hart. Boyd’s presence distracted Hart but the goalkeeper should feel disappointed.
That element of misfortune for City changed everything for Dyche’s players. They might have made something more out of it even earlier, had Ings found the composure to finish two fleeting chances. His touch was marginally heavy when he received a ball that Barnes had navigated smartly past Mangala and the moment was gone. He fired narrowly wide of Hart’s right hand post on the hour.
But Nasri’s 56th-minute strike, clawed away by goalkeeper Tom Heaton, was City’s last meaningful contribution. Shackell looked well up to the challenge. Silva’s sphere of influence narrowed after his captivating first half and Barnes’ own expanded. A midfield battle to which Fernando was unable to add authority belonged increasingly to the visiting side.
The threat to Hart’s goal was actually minimal. The Welsh striker Sam Vokes, whose return from a 10-month lay-off on Boxing Day is a source of psychological strength to Turf Moor, was not even on the bench, such was Dyche’s desire to nurse him back gently. But Burnley only needed one more chance.
Mangala was disoriented when a late free-kick floated in, Barnes leapt above Demichelis to win it, then struck when it bounced off Michael Keane’s leg into his path.
We are only half way to May but to have turned the bend into 2015 within a whisker of Chelsea would have been a substantial boost to City. The champions have real imperfections, though. That is why they look like second favourites.Reuse content