More sweat than swagger for Man City against Burnley

Burnley 1 Manchester City 2
If the mark of true champions is the knack of winning when you’re below par, then Pep Guardiola has assembled a squad who might well be celebrating fresh silverware come next May.

Guardiola’s City are that modern cliche, a work in progress — he has, after all, been in Manchester only a matter of months — and for all the breathtaking football, of which there was little here, it is the big characters he inherited who are sustaining the challenge.

A week earlier it had been Yaya Toure, the African powerhouse brought in from the cold when sorry finally stopped being the hardest word, who rampaged through Crystal Palace’s defence to keep City snapping at the heels of their title rivals.

On Saturday it was the deadly Argentine hit man Sergio Aguero who shrugged off a painful foot injury to pass a late fitness test and come up with the two goals — neither pretty, both invaluable — that saw his team leave Turf Moor with the points and renewed purpose.

Chelsea’s victory a few hours later to wreck Tottenham’s unbeaten record and restore their leadership of the table going into December, and Saturday’s high-profile clash at the Etihad Stadium, served only to remind Guardiola’s men of the handicap they carry in their toe-to-toe title duel with Antonio Conte’s crew.

“To be honest, when you are a top player and you only play once a week - like the Chelsea players, they only play once a week — it’s easier to play well, it’s easier to recover well, and it’s easier to take full advantage,” said Toure. “It’s going to be a tough game on Saturday, that’s for sure.”

Toure sat out City’s midweek Champions League draw in Germany against Borussia Moenchengladbach, although he is keen to be included in the New Year’s updated squad now that he is back in Guardiola’s good books; but a good few of his team-mates didn’t, and it was clear their efforts had taken a toll from which Chelsea, as well as Liverpool, have been excused this season.

“Yeah, definitely they have an advantage,” added Toure. “It’s difficult to play midweek and then the weekend after. Sometimes with the European schedule we play on a Wednesday, like this week, and then a Saturday. It’s sometimes tough to be focused and in these kind of games, you have to prepare well to compete.”

City’s minds were concentrated at Turf Moor by Dean Marney, who came up with his first top-flight goal in seven years to give Burnley a 14th-minute lead they fully deserved and held until the 37th minute, when Aguero pounced at the far post for a scruffy equaliser that restored some of their missing swagger.

Inevitably, it was Aguero again — this time at the near post, with a knee from Fernandinho’s pull-back on the hour — who scrambled City ahead and on the rocky road to their first win of the season from behind. His 16th goal of the campaign hauled the single-minded striker to 152 for City, one behind the great Colin Bell and within range of Eric Brook’s club record 178 mark set 76 years ago.

It was, however, tough on Paul Robinson, the former Tottenham and England goalkeeper who stepped in for his first game in two years when Burnley No 1 Tom Heaton was ruled out by a calf injury. Now 37, he pulled off several fine saves including a one-handed gem to deny Aguero at 1-1.

His last Premier League outing was in 2012, his last in the Championship in 2014 before Blackburn released him in 2015. “My career did not end the way I wanted it,” said Robinson, who joined Burnley in January. “I took a break from the game, re-evaluated things and decided if I wanted to play again, it had to be now. But I didn’t want to come back just for the sake of it.”

Robinson rolled back the years without any nerves — “it was more excitement, I knew this chance might be coming” — and Sean Dyche, his manager, declared him as lean and fit as ever, though he has no pretensions to challenging Heaton for the daunting role of keeping out the Premier League’s hit squad:

“When Tom is fit, he’ll come back in, he’s in fantastic form and he’s the captain.”

BURNLEY (4-5-1): Robinson 7; Ward 6, Keane 7, Mee 7, Lowton 6; Gudmundsson 6 (Tarkowski 43 6), Marney 7 (Arfield 40, 5), Hendrick 6, Defour 6 (Barnes 80), Boyd 6; Vokes 5.

MAN CITY (4-2-3-1): Bravo 6; Sagna 6, Otamendi 6, Kolarov 6, Clichy 6; Fernandinho 8, Fernando 7; Sterling 6 (Sane 57, 6), Toure 7, Nolito 6 (De Bruyne 78); Aguero 8 (Navas 89).

Referee: A Marriner 6.

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