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Man City labour, Guardiola complains; holiday schedule unfair; top six strong

If it hadn't been for what came afterwards -- and we'll get to that -- the tale of Manchester City hosting Burnley would be a straightforward one to tell.

Pep Guardiola -- perhaps underestimating the opposition; perhaps believing this gave him the best chance to get three points against Sean Dyche's crew; perhaps with input from his fitness staff or due to something he noticed in training -- decided to leave John Stones, Sergio Aguero and David Silva, all of whom had played 90 minutes against Liverpool less than 48 hours earlier, on the bench.

Instead, Guardiola played Aleksandar Kolarov, who had also played a full game at Anfield, albeit at left-back, Jesus Navas and Kelechi Iheanacho in their place. At half-time, he subbed the latter two, sent on the cavalry and City -- despite being down to 10 men after Fernandinho's straight red card -- took a 2-0 lead and went on to win 2-1.

If that's all you see, it was a pretty good day. Yes, the first half wasn't great but, hey, folks make mistakes. Even Guardiola. That's why pencils have erasers. He saw the problem, fixed it and went on to grab all three points. That shows grit. That shows flexibility. That shows character. All qualities of champions.

The problem is, there's more to it than that. Other than a Yaya Toure shot and a fluffed Iheanacho chance, City created little in the first half. And, sure, they were tired. But guess what? Nine of Burnley's 11 starters had played 48 hours earlier as well.

Which brings us to Fernandinho's red card. In real time, I thought a yellow would have been sufficient. With the benefit of replay, I realise the red card was pretty much inevitable. (Yes, that's part of the reason why I'm not a professional referee.) Most annoyingly, it was stupid and unnecessary. Unless you live and die by the press and winning the ball in the opposition's half.

It was Fernandinho's third red card of the season. One was unlucky -- the second yellow against Borussia Monchengladbach was harsh -- but the other two -- this one and the Cesc Fabregas choke against Chelsea -- were cast-iron bonehead moves, of the kind you don't expect from your 31-year-old midfield general.

Still, having taken it on the chin, Guardiola could still have seen his glass as half full. City had dug themselves out of a tough position. Rather than sulking and moping at being on the bench, Aguero had come on and helped change the game. The crowd was behind them. They were back in third place, at least for 24 hours.

Had it all ended there, it could have been spun into a positive. Instead, we got "post-match Pep."

Guardiola's ref complaints strike a sour note

This exchange with a BBC reporter set things on its way. Guardiola complained about the officiating, not so much Fernandinho's red, but the fact that Sam Vokes interfered with keeper Claudio Bravo in the build-up to Burnley's goal.

"Here, and all around the world, the rules say the goalkeeper in the six-yard box cannot be touched," he said. "He goes here and the striker does this ... I have to adapt and I have to understand there are special rules here in England."

Guardiola may have a point on Vokes; I'm not sure many would have had a problem if that goal had been disallowed. But, as for this business with "having to learn," you don't need to have spent a lifetime in England to know that Premier League referees afford keepers less protection.

I'm not suggesting it's right or wrong or that things are the way they were in 1958, when Bolton legend Nat Lofthouse famously did this (go to 1:42). Or, even juicier and just as unpunished, look at what Aston Villa's Peter McParland did the year before (0:40).

But talk to any keeper, who has played in the Premier League and La Liga or Serie A, and they'll tell you that it's different in England. If Pep hadn't picked up on it, I'm pretty sure City director of football Txiki Begiristain would have noticed in this three-and-a-half years at the club.

Guardiola's more general complaints about referees -- "It is always our foul, it's always City's foul" -- and sendings off -- "[City have] more ball possession, we have always sendings off" -- also struck a sour note.

First of all, possession doesn't necessarily correlate to red cards. True, you're less likely to commit a foul when you have the ball and if you have more of the ball, you would think you also foul less. But, equally, if you go and press intensely when not in possession -- as City do -- then you're more likely to foul as you chase to win back the ball.

But beyond that, of City's six Premier League red cards this season -- counting Aguero's retrospective one against West Ham -- four have nothing to do with possession or style of play. Witness Aguero's elbow on Winston Reid, his poleaxing of David Luiz, Fernandinho's throat-grabbing of Fabregas and Nolito's headbutt of Bournemouth's Adam Smith. (And if Burnley boss Sean Dyche had his way, Bacary Sagna would have been sent off too for squabbling with George Boyd.)

Stuff like this makes Guardiola appear rattled and weary. He said as much before the game, when he told NBC that he is "arriving at the end of his coaching career" and that "the process of my goodbye has already started," and after when he said: "City will be one of my last clubs ... why? Because that's what I've decided."

We've been through this before. At Barcelona, right around January, in three of his four seasons he talked about walking away. The difference is that, back then, it somehow focused and galvanised his team. Here, it feels different. He appears as a bundle of nerves and it's rubbing off on his players on the pitch.

The question is how quickly Guardiola snaps out of it. Not in terms of his future -- heck, he's a grown man, he's more than entitled to do what he wants -- but in the way it's affecting his club. So much anticipation and so much hype and so much great football too ... it would be shame if it ends up derailing a season.

Holiday fixtures need to be fair

Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp did not go as far as Sam Allardyce, who said he wanted whoever drew up the Premier League fixtures fired, but he wasn't hiding his annoyance at having to play twice in less than 48 hours.

Klopp's side were held 2-2 at Sunderland who, it must be pointed out, only had an extra two hours' rest and he can point to somewhat a soft penalty for the first opposition goal and some great saves by Vito Mannone for not getting the three points. But it must rankle that Liverpool have to play three games in the space of seven days, while the team they are chasing, Chelsea, have the luxury of playing three in 10 days. Think it doesn't make a difference? Think again.

Playing through the holidays is a tradition in England and that won't change any time soon. And, yes, broadcasters pick up the tab -- including a big chunk of Klopp's salary -- so you can't complain if games get spread out over multiple days. But surely there must be a way of making things fairer so you don't get the disparity of treatment afforded to Chelsea and Liverpool?

The gap between top and middle is growing

Remember a year ago when we were inundated with pieces about the "rise of the Premier League's middle class"? The thinking was that the new Premier League TV deal had injected so much wealth into the chasing pack outside the "big six" that they could now afford their own superstars and, in time, that would close the gap.

It made sense at the time. Leicester City and West Ham were both in the top six, the gap between sixth and 10th was three points, while 13 separated first and 10th. Today? The top six are the same familiar clubs as ever, there are 15 points between sixth and 10th and a whopping 25 between first and 10th.

So, what happened? Well, once you get the caveat about small sample size out of the way, the impression is that maybe last season was a bit of an aberration. And it's not just a question of points. What's truly remarkable is that this season the six "big clubs'" are all, to varying degrees, playing well. Really well.

Five of the six have more points than they did at this stage last season and it will be six of six if Arsenal win at Bournemouth. What's more, Man City's 39 points were good for third place in 2015-16, three points off the top at this stage last year. Today, 39 points will only get you sixth place, which is 10 points off the top and will be 13 if Chelsea win at Tottenham on Wednesday.

What we're seeing -- and maybe we'll look at this in further detail if the trend continues -- is the gap growing, both in terms of performance and results, between the big boys and the middle class.