LONDON:  For most of the season the most insistent question around Manchester City was whether they could catch and then overtake Chelsea at the top of the Premier League. Now, suddenly, the query is whether they can even hold their nerve and remain in the top four to qualify for the Champions League next season?

This season’s European campaign is already a write-off as City prepare to face a two-goal deficit at Barcelona with a strategy which must be all about damage limitation rather than outrageous ambition.

Saturday’s 1-0 defeat at struggling, promoted, all-British Burnley was the lowest point yet in City’s season. Manager Manuel Pellegrini may believe that City should have been awarded a penalty for an unpunished trip on Pablo Zabaleta in the closing minutes. That would have been unfair on Burnley’s brave effort.

City, despite a third defeat in four matches in all competitions, remain second in the league but Arsenal are one point behind and playing far better. Then come Manchester United and Liverpool – the in-form team of the moment – both chasing hard. City’s loss of cohesion illustrates a loss of confidence which could prove fatal.

Captain Vincent Kompany’s nightmare of a season was exacerbated by the mistake which opened up the opportunity for George Boyd’s second-half goal. Beyond that Eliaquim Mangala’s unreliability, Yaya Toure’s apparent lack of interest and Sergio Aguero’s loss of touch present problems in every sector for Pellegrini.

The Chilean has refused to concede defeat in the title race. He said: “Every point we drop makes it more difficult to come back at Chelsea and win the league, all we can do from here is try our best to win the next game.

“Any team can beat another in the Premier League. We needed to make more chances against Burnley because they only made one and it won them the game. We didn’t play well enough and we need to improve. I will not give up on the title until it is mathematically impossible.”

At that point Pellegrini will need to fear for his job. City’s board did not necessarily expect to retain the league title but they did demand at least one of the domestic cups and progress to the last four in the Champions League. All of those, barring a remarkable upturn in form, appear out of question.