For Manchester City, the stress signals sounded out. One by one, the wounded trudged off the field and down the tunnel.
Shortly before the interval, Kevin De Bruyne felt a tweak in his hamstring, stumbled over to the touchline and after a chat with Pep Guardiola, he exited the fray. Then, immediately after the interval, John Stones followed the same pattern, complaining of groin trouble.
Having already lost Aymeric Laporte and Fernandinho to injuries over the past week, City’s men are falling at an alarming rate. As the run-in intensifies, it may be that the physical toll on Guardiola’s men derails their efforts across three competitions. Yet it will not be for want of trying.
Briefly, we wondered whether this may become the kind of awkward away encounter that undermine title charges. Certainly, as City sought to protect a slender advantage late on, Guardiola’s agitation increased on the touchline.
When Kyle Walker and Joshua King squared up in front of the dugout, Guardiola himself stepped between the two players to ensure Walker did not end up in too much bother.
When Walker then squandered possession, his manager gripped his head in his hands and squatted down on his haunches.
The angst was written across his face and on the final whistle, there relief poured out through bear hugs with every member of his backroom staff. These were the kind of embraces that suggested City had overcome a significant hurdle.
In truth, however, anxiety crept in only because of City’s profligacy. They created enough chances to win this match by three or four goals and, remarkably, their dominance was such that their hosts did not earn a corner or serve up a single shot on goal.
‘We made one of the best performances we have played,’ Guardiola insisted. ‘We demand a lot of the players without giving them the time to rest physiologically. That is why it is incredible. No matter what happens this season they deserve my admiration.’
As such, it was only the slender margin of City’s lead that could truly trouble Guardiola but the manager knows that his side have no room for error in their gripping pursuit of Liverpool.
Any dropped points at this stage represent a drama. Instead, this win marked a fifth victory in succession and returns the pressure onto Liverpool ahead of today’s Merseyside derby at Goodison Park.
Waking up this morning, Guardiola will be happy. Despite his praise for his side, City’s performance was a little stodgy until they broke through and the flair that epitomises Guardiola’s side appeared elusive.
When their best-laid plans were then undone by injuries, it begged a question of the team’s mentality. Yet when the going got tough, the tough got going. This, therefore, was a day when the manager would have learned much about his players.
Riyad Mahrez, for example, has not always found life straightforward at City. He missed a crucial penalty kick at Anfield and since early December, his only goals have come against Rotherham, Burton and Newport County.
For a £60m signing, more is expected and his winning goal was an important intervention after he replaced De Bruyne from the bench. The goal itself was rather scruffy. Howe grimaced: ‘Probably the ugliest one they will score all season.’
Oleksandr Zinchenko worked his inside from the left side and Bournemouth could not quite clear their lines. David Silva took the ball on inside the penalty area, nudged it to his right towards Mahrez, who had time to control before scuffing a low finish past Artur Boruc at his near post.
Guardiola said: ‘It was so important for Riyad. He has to be ready. He has to be positive and say “OK my time is going to come.” Because I don’t have any doubt about his quality. I know his mentality is aggressive but he has to understand where he is. He is at a team that won 100 points and the people in front are incredible players.’
After taking the lead, City created more clear-cut chances. Bernardo Silva produced a sublime pass to split the Bournemouth defence and Raheem Sterling was denied by a fine Boruc save.
Boruc then produced a more eye-catching stop when Sterling broke through once more. The England international looked to have headed the ball past Boruc on his way to rounding the goalkeeper but the Pole clawed out a hand to divert the ball clear.
The increasingly exposed goalkeeper also saved impressively from a late Mahrez header, while Sergio Aguero’s impudent chipped effort deceived the goalkeeper but clipped the crossbar.
In the first-half, City, began authoritatively but for all the oppressive numbers – City had over eighty per cent of the ball – Bournemouth actually looked quite comfortable and they earned a club record of their own by preventing City from scoring during a half of Premier League football for the first time.
Yet even when City are a touch off-colour, they continue to play, continue to create opportunities. David Silva had the best of the first-half chances, side-footing wide after a De Bruyne pull-back. City also threatened from set-pieces, as Boruc clawed down to deflect away after a melee at a corner.
Bournemouth are a peculiar team that started the season impressively but their campaign has been derailed by injuries and stuttering form. They have lost nine consecutive away games but they are a different beast at home, where they had only been defeated by Liverpool in their last seven.
As Maurizio Sarri discovered, Bournemouth can be quite the team when the mood takes them. Howe’s team were open and defensively dreadful at Arsenal during the week and the 5-1 scoreline actually flattered them.
On this occasion, Bournemouth arrived with a plan to frustrate and a five man defence that was fiercely protected by a dogged team performance.
Yet for all Bournemouth’s tenacity and spirit, City’s breakthrough felt an inevitability and so, eventually, it proved.