Sunday 18 August 2019

Tommy Conlon: 'Beautiful Man City are heavyweight competitors with featherweight touch'


Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola. Photo: Martin Rickett/PA
Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola. Photo: Martin Rickett/PA

Tommy Conlon

Pep Guardiola evidently tries hard to be a humble man but when he was asked to look forward to his next fixture, he sounded as if Cindy Crawford had been forced to enter this year's Mary from Dungloe beauty pageant.

Manchester City had just beaten Manchester United 2-0 on Wednesday night. It had been billed as City's last major obstacle on their way to retaining the Premier League title. They had shown their indisputable class in the second half at Old Trafford; they had beaten the former superpower and beaten them with impressive authority in the end.

But now that the smoke had cleared from the battle field, another skirmish in Lancashire loomed into view. They had three games remaining but this was supposed to be a fairly basic mopping-up operation if they managed to scatter Manchester's red army. And having duly done so, they would sweep through the remaining garrisons with little or no resistance to stop them.

However, when you are in front by just a single point with three games to go, these ostensibly minor skirmishes become magnified one by one into cup finals. A match against one of the division's also-rans is suddenly a fraught affair; one slip on the tightrope might prove to be fatal. And so that swathe of the global population which is besotted by the Premier League will today be fixated on Turf Moor, the homely venue of Burnley FC. In particular, the nation of Liverpool FC, home and abroad, will turn its lonely eyes to this tiny provincial ground in search of a miracle. They need some player out of Burnley, or Leicester City or Brighton & Hove Albion over the next fortnight, to become their improbable hero and lifelong recipient of free drinks.

Turf Moor is no Camp Nou and Burnley's players are no wizards. This was of no comfort to Guardiola as he contemplated the prospect on Wednesday night. "I know people are going to talk about how beautiful we are," said the City manager in the post-match press conference, "how handsome we are, but now we have to go to Burnley." And with this he added a rueful chuckle, as if to imply that even supermodels have to slum it from time to time. "And in my two previous seasons, going to Burnley was incredibly tough."

Basically, he was warning against any flattery or complacency, just because they'd dished out a lesson to United earlier that evening. Turf Moor, capacity 22,000 approx, would offer the reality check that had failed to materialise at Old Trafford, capacity 75,000 approx. A squad with a wage bill of £58m would offer a meatier challenge than the United squad that costs almost £300m in annual salary.

It was Seán Dyche who mentioned the £58m figure on Monday night, albeit that Deloitte's latest financial report on Premier League pay estimates that Burnley's squad earned a total of £82m for 2017/18. The same report claims that Chelsea's wage bill for last season was £244m. And Burnley had just finished 2-2 with them at Stamford Bridge. The point gained left them on 40 for the season, the numerical threshold that usually guarantees survival.

The Burnley manager, then, was one satisfied customer in his post-match press conference at the Bridge. Even accusations of "anti-football" from the Chelsea camp left him unruffled. They were accused of engaging in repeated time-wasting, packing their defence and refusing to come out and play. Both their goals came from set-pieces. Some of their coaching staff got into a squabble with Maurizio Sarri, the Chelsea manager, on the sideline. He accused them of calling him "a shit Italian". There were further remonstrations in the tunnel.

"Handbags, man bags, bum bags, I don't know what you're allowed to call it without offending somebody anymore," shrugged Dyche, "but we are allowed to get a point now and again at these places. We haven't got the technical prowess of some of these teams, we can't afford the technical prowess of some of these teams; you have to find a way of trying to win games, we've always had to find a way."

Spoken like the true son of Sam Allardyce. Guardiola is expecting an old-fashioned British examination today: a brawny, rugged outfit, hard-running and well-organised, with two bustling target-men upfront to launch themselves at airborne ball, all galvanised by a raucous home atmosphere. Yes, said the elegant Spaniard, "we have to go to Burnley."

But the champions have seen this movie before too. Manchester City are a team with integrity as well as artistry. They play the game with a featherweight touch but they are heavyweight competitors. Their manager is a most serious man; his players are serious about winning. They take palpable pleasure in the mesmerising patterns they can weave, but the beauty is harnessed to an unimpeachable attitude. They are astonishingly reliable, consistent, dutiful. This for them is Game 36 of 38; they will not be complacent, they will not be intimidated by their opponents or the crowd. But they will be nervous - until they get the first goal at any rate.

And presumably Burnley's players will park their relief at surviving another season for the privilege of competing in the limelight at such a climactic moment. One of the division's supporting cast has an opportunity to steal a chunk of the story. This is a shop window of sorts for them too. City "won't be coming to Turf Moor expecting a walk in the park, and we won't allow them that," vowed Dyche on Friday.

Sixth from bottom at time of writing, he can expect to see his side sliced and diced by the maestros on occasion this afternoon. They will be hanging on by their fingernails at times. But there should be a bit of sporadic anarchy in the box at the other end too. City will still be beautiful and handsome tomorrow; they will be parading down a fairly hairy catwalk today.

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