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Man City’s secret weapon in win over Burnley: set-piece specialist Carlos Vicens

Julian Alvarez

Pep Guardiola was up off his seat the moment the ball hit the net and hurtling up the steps to the seats behind the Manchester City dug out where Carlos Vicens was sat among his other backroom staff.

Burnley had just been unpicked by a free-kick straight off the training ground en route to another ugly mauling at the Etihad Stadium and Guardiola was eager to pay public tribute to his set-piece specialist.

Pep Guardiola and Carlos Vicens
Guardiola congratulates his free-kick specialist

Vicens wore a slightly embarrassed look as City’s manager flung his arms around his neck. He will know it is a lot easier to pull off such ingenuity when there are players like Kevin De Bruyne and Julián Alvarez to execute his instructions but these things still require an architect and he should have been proud of his hand in a wonderful piece of well-rehearsed theatre.

Burnley, it is safe to assume, were expecting De Bruyne to clip in an aerial ball and the City midfielder, a master of disguise, was certainly more than happy to give the opposition that impression, raising his hand to signal as much as he looked over at the scrum of bodies ahead.

Of course, De Bruyne and City had formulated a very different plan and Alvarez knew that, so long as he timed his run correctly, his captain would find him with one of those trademark, perfectly weighted passes.

No matter how many times they had practised the routine on the training field, though, it is still an arresting sight to see it coming off in a game. Guardiola’s celebration spoke to that.

Alvarez’s run across Vitinho and in behind an equally unsuspecting Wilson Odobert was as stealth-like as the vertical, low, driven, 20 yard pass from De Bruyne that found him. All that was required then was a deft finish into the corner, ahead of the advancing James Trafford, and Alvarez made that look easy, too, when it was anything but.

And so the birthday boy, 24 on the day, had his second goal in the space of six minutes as Burnley stared down the barrel of another hiding in east Manchester and City’s Premier League title rivals shuddered at the prospect of De Bruyne looking better and better and Erling Haaland returning to raise the threat level further still.

Erling Haaland
Erling Haaland played 19 minutes off the bench in his comeback after a 56-day lay-off - Chris Brunskill/Fantasista/Getty Images

Indeed, such was the attention on Haaland’s presence back in the squad after almost two months out with a foot injury that it was easy to forget John Stones had also returned for his first appearance since Christmas.

City were 3-0 up and coasting, with Rodri adding the third after Burnley were hopelessly unpicked just 25 seconds into the second half, when Haaland was introduced with 20 minutes remaining. It was not what Burnley, who are surely destined for a quick return to the Championship, or Liverpool, Arsenal and the rest of those with title aspirations would have particularly wanted to see.

City had won nine and drawn one of the 10 games Haaland missed so it is fair to say last season’s Treble winners have coped pretty well in the Norway striker’s absence. But having available again a chap who plundered 52 goals last term might just come in handy over the next few months and his introduction was rapturously received by the City fans.

Burnley have now conceded 31 goals in seven visits to the Etihad and there was never going to be any doubt about the outcome of this result once Alvarez had doubled City’s lead. His first was rather more prosaic. Matheus Nunes had shown good pace down the right to surge on to Phil Foden’s through ball. Nunes’ first attempt at a cross was blocked but his second saw the ball drop nicely on to the head of Alvarez who could not miss.

City’s sumptuous free-kick routine for the second earned De Bruyne his 104th Premier League assist, moving him ahead of Wayne Rooney and behind only Ryan Giggs and Cesc Fabregas in the all-time standings. And the Belgian was involved in City’s third, too, releasing Foden in behind for the England midfielder to pull the ball back for Rodri to curl home a shot from the D.

Burnley did manage a goal in stoppage time when substitute David Fofana rounded Josko Gvardiol to cross for Ameen Al-Dakhil to bundle over the line but it was scant consolation against a team who, in every aspect, had been five steps ahead.

Manchester City must be flawless in a five-horse race for the title – Guardiola

Pep Guardiola believes Manchester City are in a five-horse title race and must be flawless to complete their historical fourth successive Premier League.

City defeated Burnley 3-1 to stay five points behind Liverpool and the form of Jürgen Klopp’s team and Arsenal means Guardiola has demanded perfection in the next four months.

Julián Alvarez’s double on his 24th birthday and Rodri’s strike made it a comfortable evening for City, with Ameen Al-Dakhil replying for Burnley. Guardiola says his players will bring out their best with the pressure of their rivals.

“What is important is that we are there,” said Guardiola. “I know now that in the first part of the season was a lot of games, now we are counting down and we know what happens if we drop points with the quality that Arsenal and Liverpool have.

“They want that pressure to be active. If we are flat against those teams, I don’t have the feeling I have in the past. When we won a lot of games in a row, we had that feeling that Liverpool would not drop points.

“Now we see that they are winning comfortable so we have to be ready. The players know it. We push each other and until the end we will try to do the same. I would say the mentality is there. I don’t have any doubts about it but if we lose a game maybe people say we don’t have the right mentality, like I heard this season. It’s not that.

“It’s not just three. Tottenham and Aston Villa are still there. My feeling when I see Arsenal playing is they control many aspects of the game. When you see Liverpool, every game they are better than the opponent. You can lose games but they are better. I know how strong they are but still we are there.”

City’s second goal came from a set-piece that saw Kevin De Bruyne surprise Burnley’s defence by slipping through Alvarez when most were expecting a shot. It had Guardiola heading into the dugout to congratulate set-piece coach Carlos Vicens.

“Today set-pieces are really important,” Guardiola said. “We won the FA Cup against Spurs from a corner and today Carlos and Jack [Wilson, City analyst]) prepared. I’m not involved in set-pieces because the other ones are better and I don’t have time and we are preparing things and corners.

“Like every team. It’s not that we are different to other teams but we prepared this free-kick and it worked. Kevin had to make the perfect pass and Julian the movement. Someone had the idea to do this so all credit to Carlos and Jack.”

Erling Haaland made his comeback after seven weeks out with a broken foot, with Guardiola adding: “Today if it was 7-0 at half-time he would have played more minutes. If it was 0-0 maybe he wouldn’t have played a minute. I saw him sharp, the feeling that he was there. He didn’t have clear chances but Jérémy [Doku] didn’t see him when he could score. It has been really good without him for the last two months but with him we are a better team and we are really pleased that he is back.”

Burnley forward Manuel Benson could be leaving the club on deadline day after being left out of the matchday squad with Hull, Southampton and Leeds United interested in signing him during the window.

“There were rumours about him going on loan, it is normal he wants to play and we will see how it resolves itself,” said Burnley manager Vincent Kompany, who is hoping for an active final day of the window.

“I hope something will happen for us tomorrow. We are at the stage of the season where we have to rely on the guys in the squad. You can make miracle transfers but they are difficult to find.”

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