First-half goals from David Silva, his fourth in three games, and Fernandinho’s first of the season apparently had City cruising to within a point of Chelsea after their earlier draw at Southampton.
But if occasions such as this test the mettle of true champions, this was a test that City failed badly as a much improved second half performance from Sean Dyche’s relegation-threatened side brought them a deserved point.
Within two minutes of the restart, City found themselves without numbers at the back and George Boyd glanced Danny Ings’ cross-shot past Joe Hart, despite replays suggesting he did so from an offside position.
Then, eight minutes from time, Jason Shackell’s long free-kick was flicked on by Ashley Barnes with the ball ricocheting kindly off Michael Keane and falling back to Barnes who lashed it in.
It was the most unlikely outcome from a Burnley side which had scored just 12 goals from their opening 18 games before their Etihad visit.
But how it was deserved and how badly were City’s title pretensions exposed, along with evidence of how much the team needs Yaya Toure, rested as a precaution because of a slight groin injury, in its midfield engine room.
Eliaquim Mangala, in particular, looked far short of the stuff of champions and, considering how frequently Pellegrini complains that Financial Fair Play regulations have hampered his team this season, the €40 million invested in the French centre-half looks increasingly disastrous.
“In football, two balls can decide the score,” said Pellegrini, showing better defensive insincts than his team did in that second period. “At the beginning of the second half, Burnley scored a clear offside goal; after that, with a rebound, they scored the second.
“We need to run a lot of metres and maybe leading 2-0 we thought that the game was over but until the final whistle the game has never finished.
“Of course, this was a chance to have two points more, but not a chance for anything else. We have to play the complete second round (of fixtures). We have finished the first round with 43 points, which is a good amount of points. After leading 2-0, it’s more disappointing to lose the two points but we have all the second round to see who is the best team.”
Earlier, the supposed gulf in class between the sides was highlighted in the manner of City’s opening goal in the 23rd minute, a clinical Silva finish. It came from a darting run down the right by the energetic Jesus Navas who reached the dead-ball line from where he pulled back for Silva who switched feet neatly, swivelled and sent an unstoppable finish past Tom Heaton.
Without the predatory Sergio Aguero in their side, City had to rely on an unlikely source for their second goal as Fernandinho’s superb shot put them well in control on 33 minutes.
The visiting defence stood off City on the edge of their own area, allowing Samir Nasri to move the ball along to Fernandinho who was also allowed time and space, switching the ball to his right foot and depositing a magnificent shot in off the underside of the cross-bar from a step outside the 18-yard box.
The second half was a different matter, however, with the early Burnley goal setting the tone. Had Ings’ first touch not let him down moments later Burnley might have claimed a highly improbable equaliser and chances continued as Shackell headed just over, Ings shot just wide and Scott Arfield’s shot was blocked before the late drama.
“I keep reading about ‘struggling Burnley,’” said Dyche. “The expectation this season was we had no chance at all. If you look at the way the team is performing, we’re not struggling.”
MAN CITY (4-2-3-1): Hart 5; Zabaleta 7, Demichelis 5, Mangala 4, Kolarov 5; Fernando 6, Fernandinho 7 (Sinclair 87); Navas 7, Silva 8, Nasri 6 (Lampard 72, 6); Milner 6 (Jovetic 61, 6).
BURNLEY (4-4-2): Heaton 7; Trippier 7, Keane 7, Shackell 8, Mee 7; Boyd 7, Marney 6, Jones 6, Arfield 6; Ings 8, Barnes 9.
Referee: K Friend 7