Man City mentality put to the test as Guardiola's men close in on domestic treble

The team described as lacking in leaders the last time they lost a Premier League match is just three games from the title and four from a treble

Manchester City’s reward for winning the three key Premier League games identified and prioritised by Pep Guardiola is simply another three must-win games.

After winning at Selhurst Park and Old Trafford either side of a tense home clash with Tottenham, City still have the title in their own hands and know that victories against Burnley, Leicester and Brighton will make them champions again, with 98 points.

But Guardiola ensured his players were fully focused on winning those three matches – even at the expense of the Champions League first-leg game at Tottenham – not because City would win the title if they won them, but because they would lose it if they dropped points.

So now they go to Turf Moor, perhaps the Premier League’s most infamous ground, for another match in which victory will not decide their fate, but a draw or defeat almost certainly will.

Guardiola’s chief lesson from his first season in England was an appreciation of winning the second balls, and at Burnley that particular aspect of City’s ever-improving game will be put firmly to the test.

And they may have to face that particular battle with a depleted midfield. Victory at Manchester United in midweek came at a cost, with both Fernandinho and Ilkay Gundogan forced off with injuries during the second half.

Fernandinho is no giant but his ability to challenge for high balls has become crucial to Guardiola’s side, so much so that any deep-lying midfielder they sign in future must be able to win a header or two. It is one of the reasons why Rodri, of Atletico Madrid, has been identified as this summer’s priority midfield target.

Heading is not quite Gundogan’s strong suit but he has looked more and more comfortable at the back of midfield in recent weeks, so much so that the club are doubling down in their attempts to sign him up to a new contract. It is far from a sure thing, but there is more confidence that he will extend his deal than there was at the start of April.

Guardiola will be praying at least one of those two can make it, not least because Kevin De Bruyne is ruled out yet again.

Just as the Belgian was looking ready to push City over the line having finally returned from his two knee injuries and various other muscle problems, he was struck down again and will not be able to carve open Burnley like he did Palace two weeks ago.

But whether City’s midfield is makeshift or not, Guardiola can be confident that they have the character, as well the quality, to get them through.

Having vanquished complacency – the bogeyman that the Catalan warned his players about so much last summer – City have now proven that they have what it takes to bounce back from adversity, one of the key areas that Guardiola highlighted for improvement 12 months ago.

Of course, City do not have a Champions League semi-final to show for their efforts against Tottenham but the reaction to that most unprecedented of late, late dramas has spoken volumes for their mentality and an ability to keep their heads even when things go against them.

“I think that is the most difficult and incredible detail for these players,” Guardiola said at Old Trafford on Wednesday. “You cannot imagine how tough it was to go out of the beautiful competition the Champions League when we felt it was there. For one hand not given, for one inch. It was really tough.

“Three days later we have Tottenham at home, it was not the best performance, but the sun was shining, incredibly warm on the pitch, to stay alive in the Premier League when Tottenam didn’t play for anything, the pressure we felt and how we react, that is more important than the other things you can read or write or say.”

The heartbreak of that Spurs game would have derailed lesser teams, but City are made of stronger stuff. Gundogan, for example, was seen crying on Guardiola’s shoulder but played so well at Old Trafford a week later.

Steely determination is not yet a characteristic that City are generally credited for. After all, the last time they dropped points in the league they were widely accused of having no leaders in the team. That was three months and 11 league games ago, and City have not succumbed to so much as a draw since.

“The reaction in the bad moments is the most important detail to [highlight] the character of the team,” Guardiola added on Friday. “When everything is going well it’s easier, but when you have big disappointments and how you react, stand up again quickly, that is the important part.

“So many times they showed me, many times they tried, and I’m pretty sure on Sunday we are going to do it again.”

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