Liverpool had a brief time to enjoy the sight of the league table. Then came the confirmation that while taking over Manchester City was an achievement, finishing above them will be a far greater one. If City had a two-hour sojourn in second, it only took Pep Guardiola’s team four minutes to demonstrate they would reclaim the status they held for four months.
Leaders since December, briefly deposed by Liverpool, City’s opener came so quickly that Jürgen Klopp was able to reference it in his post-match interviews after the 2-0 win over Watford at Anfield. Statements of intent are rarely quicker or more eloquent.
If City, 14 points clear of Liverpool in January, passed a psychological test as they looked utterly unruffled by the temporary shift in the pecking order, they played with the assurance of a team with little need to worry about scorelines elsewhere. They dispatched Burnley with a performance of elegant dominance. They did it their way: while Klopp has forwards as potent as Diogo Jota, City share the goals around and Kevin De Bruyne and Ilkay Gündogan struck. Perhaps it summed up a team’s ethos that the latter passed the ball into the net.
Long before half-time, the visiting City fans were sufficiently confident of victory that their attention turned to past heroes. While they celebrated Pablo Zabaleta and Yaya Touré in song, the current class excelled. Raheem Sterling was a selfless supplier for two goals, running past, beyond and behind Charlie Taylor at will.
After his evolution into a scorer, his outings on the right are rarities these days but Sterling rewound the clock to turn provider. His performance lacked only the finish and he miscued a volley, following a delightful pass from Phil Foden, but his crossing was more accurate. Burnley’s narrow tactics also afforded João Cancelo freedom and he was predictably influential, part full-back, part playmaker. In the middle, Rodri ran the game, but he will rarely have an easier match.
The Burnley of cliche, the obdurate opponents who frustrated their supposed superiors with abrasiveness and organization, were nowhere to be seen. Ominously, given the growing probability of relegation, they looked a side shorn of spirit. Such fight as Burnley displayed was of the wrong variety: Wout Weghorst was fortunate to escape with a yellow card for elbowing Cancelo.
City have long specialized in swatting Burnley aside in more legitimate ways. This was a 10th straight win against them and as the aggregate score now stands at 34-1, technically it is one of Burnley’s better results in that sequence.
Perhaps that miserable record prompted Sean Dyche to change tack. His fondness for 4-4-2 is famous but he opted to include an extra midfielder. If the intention was to keep it tight, the game was gone before Maxwel Cornet was summoned at half-time and Ederson was not tested until the replacement Jay Rodriguez’s 75th-minute shot. Briefly, however, Dyche may have sensed early vindication. Josh Brownhill had the license to break from deep to join Weghorst and, when Aaron Lennon whipped in a cross, he met it with an emphatic header from the edge of box that flew just wide.
Thereafter, Dyche’s plans backfired. While Burnley fielded three largely defensive midfielders, within 25 minutes City’s central trio had mustered five shots, all while essentially unmarked, and scored twice. Rodri twice came close in the opening 10 minutes. His sidekicks found the finishing touch, each after emerging unchecked in the inside-right channel.
When Rodri angled a cross to the far post, Taylor allowed Sterling too much room to tee up De Bruyne. His finish was emphatic, rasping and rising. De Bruyne and Sterling combined again for the second, exchanging passes as the England player sped clear to chip in a cross. Gündogan timed his arrival in the penalty box to cushion a volley past Nick Pope.
The goalkeeper was required to excel, especially when Foden improvised a backheeled shot. The substitute Gabriel Jesus volleyed over and then struck the post. If the title is decided by goal difference, City may yet regret not turning their superiority into further strikes. Instead, their thoughts turned to Atlético Madrid.