Football: A first-hand look at City's silent assassins at work

Manchester City's Riyad Mahrez (left, in blue) vies with Burnley's Charlie Taylor during the English Premier League football match at the Etihad Stadium in Manchester, on June 22, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

MANCHESTER - "Tighter, Chaz, tighter."

It is the Premier League's sixth biggest ground, a place where they normally serenade superstars, and the only sound is the gruff bellow of Sean Dyche, Burnley's gravel-voiced manager, ordering his left-back, Charlie Taylor, to close down Riyad Mahrez.

He does, but 20 minutes later, Mahrez turns an insufficiently tight Taylor inside out, angles a shot beyond Nick Pope and Manchester City go 2-0 up.

Then Dyche is muted. The sole voice heard comes from BBC Radio Manchester at the back of the stand.

Some five minutes - and a further Mahrez goal - later, the soundtrack is appropriate.

"This is how it feels to be lonely," echoes around the Etihad Stadium, the chorus of a song by the Mancunian band the Inspiral Carpets, played over the Tannoy.

Now the Manchester United fans' disparaging nickname, "the Emptyhad", is actually true.

The digital advertising hoardings proclaim "we're not really here."

It is the slogan the City fans adopted when they were in the third tier in 1999. Now they aren't. Virtually no one is.

There are about 300 of us in a stadium that can hold 55,097.

Giant flags cover more chairs than all the people present.

We are spaced out, the executive, exclusive seats in City's Tunnel Club dotted with substitutes.

The only fans are on a Zoom wall of big screens by either goal, apart from a few employed by the club. Or, in Phil Foden's case, on the pitch and the scoresheet.

The others have stayed away.

When the PA announcer invites anyone to clap as the City goalkeepers come out for their warm-up, a solitary man obliges. It was an optimistic request but old habits die hard.

The match day has been re-imagined for football in the shadow of a pandemic.

It is elongated and shortened. A medical questionnaire has to be filled in on the morning of the game.

Our temperature is taken upon arrival, but that has to be within 90 minutes of kick-off, just as the ground closes an hour after the end.

Much of the Etihad has been cordoned off. A circuitous one-way route leads us past at least 30 staff via the green zone into the amber zone but never the red: That is reserved for players and a select group of others.

At one point the process entails applying hand sanitiser before going around the corner to apply more hand sanitiser.

Safety rules. Much of normality has gone. There are no facilities, no food. Jamie Carragher carries a flask he has brought from home.

There is no team sheet; it is one fewer thing to touch.

But some things stay the same where these teams are concerned: With or without fans, Burnley lose 5-0 at the Etihad.

Few are as well-suited to games that feel like training-ground exercises as City, whose form is not dependent upon atmosphere.

In football's strange new world, Burnley make the noise.

Minus the chants and the taunts of the absent crowd, they provide the only aural backdrop with the constant commentary of the captain Ben Mee, Pope and Dyche.

Meanwhile, City's players are the silent assassins, excelling amid the eeriness and emptiness.

Their manager does pipe up, even if there were times when Pep Guardiola is incomprehensible.

Not entirely convincingly, he yells "well done" when Joao Cancelo skews a shot over.

There are urgent appeals - "pass, pass, pass again" - but they are increasingly unnecessary as a rout develops.

So after a hat-trick of 5-0 defeats at the same ground, Dyche conducts his post-match press conference on Zoom.

And finally, briefly he goes silent. His microphone isn't working.

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