City hangs on to beat Burnley, stays on track for EPL title
BURNLEY, England (AP) — With a few minutes left in the game and the team’s title challenge on the line, Manchester City had four center backs on the field and its cultured coach Pep Guardiola was heard shouting frantically from his technical area: “Get it in the corner.”
City was content to grind out three points in any way possible from its awkward trip to Burnley on Sunday — and they were earned via the narrowest of margins.
After a goalmouth scramble in the 63rd minute, Sergio Aguero’s scuffed shot glanced off the fingertips of Burnley goalkeeper Tom Heaton and span 29.1 millimeters over the line before the ball was hacked clear.
Referee Paul Tierney was told through his earpiece that a goal should be awarded and it was enough to seal a nerve-wracking 1-0 win at Turf Moor.
City is now two wins away from retaining the title for the first time.
“Without technology,” Guardiola said of the goal, “maybe it is not given.”
His Burnley counterpart, Sean Dyche, laughed out loud as he recalled the lengths City and Guardiola went to escape from one of the toughest away games in the Premier League with a victory.
“They are definitely not anti-football,” a smiling Dyche said of City, one of the most aesthetically pleasing soccer teams in the world.
“The game plan, to make it as deliberately awkward as possible for them, nearly got us something.”
As it was, City came away with a 12th straight win and climbed back above Liverpool into a one-point lead. The defending champions are assured of collecting English soccer’s biggest prize for a fourth time in seven years if they win their final two games, at home to Leicester and away to Brighton.
Liverpool’s remaining games are against Newcastle away and Wolverhampton Wanderers at home.
Guardiola said he was particularly impressed by how his team has bounced back from its agonizing elimination from the Champions League quarterfinals at the hands of Tottenham, when technology wasn’t so favorable to his players. Since then, City has beaten Tottenham, Manchester United and now Burnley in league games.
“Our reaction has been outstanding,” Guardiola said, “overwhelming as a professional.”
City’s squad of global superstars was faced with a quintessentially English setting as they looked to keep the initiative in the title race. Behind the quaint Turf Moor ground were rolling hills, rows of terraced houses and old cotton mills. A game of cricket was taking place on a patch of grass beside the stadium.
City was also coming up against a team well-versed in stout defending and a direct, route-one approach.
“We are Burnley, we’ll play how we want,” Burnley fans sang during the game.
It took City a while to get used to a slow, dry field and the champions’ build-up play was unusually ponderous at times in the first half when the Silvas, Bernardo and David, wasted good chances from close range.
It was a City siege in the second half, though, with the team’s passing much crisper and penetrative.
David Silva had a penalty shout turned down after Burnley striker Ashley Barnes appeared to handle the midfielder’s shot. Burnley center backs Ben Mee and James Tarkowski, sitting very deep, kept getting in the way of passes, crosses and shots.
The goal, when it came, was one of the scrappiest City has scored this season. Aguero collected a short cross from Bernardo Silva, saw his initial effort blocked, and then tried again, although it was slightly mis-hit.
Heaton got his hand to it but the ball dribbled behind him and just over the line before Burnley defender Matthew Lowton could clear.
“A legend,” Guardiola said of match-winner Aguero, who reached 20 goals in a Premier League season for the fifth time. “He does that all the time.”
Guardiola sent on two center backs — John Stones and Nicolas Otamendi — in place of Aguero and Sterling for the final minutes to preserve the lead. He was agitated as he saw his players concede free kicks and give up possession easily in injury time.
Still, City survived.
“Just two more games,” Guardiola said.
Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80