Aston Villa manager Dean Smith revealed he was sent off during his team's 2-0 Premier League defeat at Manchester City for suggesting the officials were clowns.

Villa put bodies on the line to frustrate City at the Etihad Stadium on Wednesday until Bernardo Silva opened the scoring with a contentious goal 11 minutes from time.

Rodri came back from an offside position behind Tyrone Mings to dispossess the Villa defender and set up Silva, who finished clinically with his left foot from the edge of the penalty area.

Smith was then shown a red card by referee Jon Moss for telling fourth official David Coote he thought the officials must have been given juggling balls for Christmas.

Ilkay Gundogan rubbed salt into the wounds by scoring from the spot after Matty Cash was penalised for handball, and Villa boss Smith made his feelings clear after his team were beaten in what was their first top-flight game for 19 days due to a coronavirus outbreak.

"I still don't understand the rule if I’m honest," said Smith.

"I don't think anyone can tell me why a goal has been given. He [Rodri] has taken advantage of an offside position. He comes back and tackles Tyrone Mings from behind.

"What was Tyrone supposed to do, just let it go through? He was 10 metres offside. Do you just stand there all the time now?

"I thought they'd at least go over to the screen as it looked clear offside. I looked at the screen myself and it looked like a clear offside.

"When I realised they weren't even going to take a look I told the fourth official I thought they had got juggling balls for Christmas.

"If that's the law then definitely [it should be changed]. He's standing offside and taking an unfair advantage from that. Nobody in this stadium thinks that goal should have stood, so you can't tell me it should have stood and that tells you there is a fault with the law."

He added: "I don't think anyone can tell me why it's been given. What is Tyrone meant to do? Can you stand 10 yards offside now?

"Nobody in the stadium feels that should have counted so you can't tell me that should have counted."

Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola believes Kevin De Bruyne may have suffered a muscular injury in the 2-0 win over Aston Villa, though he is waiting on further updates.

De Bruyne hobbled off in the second half as City beat Villa on Wednesday to move top of the Premier League table.

City star De Bruyne was replaced approaching the hour mark before Bernardo Silva and Ilkay Gundogan scored during the final 11 minutes at home to Villa, the former in controversial circumstances.

Kyle Walker also succumbed to injury after just 28 minutes, and Guardiola was asked about the pair.

"First, I didn't speak to the doctor," he said.

"Kyle asked to be out because something happened – hopefully it was just a kick.

"Kevin put his hand on his leg. Maybe it will be something muscular. But what do you expect? It's normal, sometimes these things happen with these kind of games."

City are now unbeaten in 16 games across all competitions after defeating a Villa side whose previous top-flight outing was a 2-1 loss to Manchester United 19 days earlier, having suffered a coronavirus outbreak.  

Silva broke the deadlock in the 79th minute amid strong claims for offside against Rodri as Villa boss Dean Smith was sent off for his protests, while Gundogan's late penalty sealed the win.

"I didn't watch the image on TV, I know they complained on the touchline," Guardiola said when discussing Silva's contentious goal.

"And VAR is there. So there are many challenges, with long balls when the player is offside, and you go backwards, the central defenders, you clear the ball, central defender for themselves, the counter attack.

"But VAR was there. If it was offside, the goal would have been disallowed, but honestly I didn't watch it, and I understand they complained about this action. In general, the game we played was outstanding."

City have kept 10 clean sheets in their 18 Premier League games this season – only in 1976-77 (17 games) have they reached that figure in fewer fixtures in their league history.

After a difficult start to the season, his side are firmly back in the mix, and Guardiola added: "There are many, many teams, but if you ask me for my opinion, still have one game left to finish the first round, so the rise in the table is good because we are there.

"When we lost against Tottenham, we were 12th in the table, but then we lost just two games and the most important thing, is the fact that we are back since Newcastle game, playing the game we have to play to be contenders. Everyone wants to win, wants to be champions but you have to show why you are champions.

"Today, I had the feeling that we controlled many aspects, we had the right tempo of the game, we concede few, create a lot. We have to be more clinical in the final third, especially in the eight yard box and penalty spot but we'll improve."

Bernardo Silva was relieved to end his Premier League goal drought as Manchester City earned a late 2-0 win over Aston Villa to go top.

The Portugal international superbly scored a disputed first Premier League goal of the season 11 minutes from time.

Villa boss Dean Smith was sent off for his protests after he felt Silva's strike should have been ruled out for offside against Rodri, who won the ball back from Tyrone Mings in the build-up.

The Spain international was in a clear offside position when Mings received possession but the officials allowed the goal to stand because, under the current interpretation of the law, a new phase of play began after the Villa centre-back touched the ball.

Ilkay Gundogan's last-minute penalty sealed the points to extend City's winning run to nine matches.

Rivals Manchester United can replace them at the summit if they are victorious when they face Fulham later on Wednesday.

For Silva, it was his first league strike since the 5-0 win at Brighton and Hove Albion in July.

And it was his first Premier League goal at the Etihad Stadium in 20 appearances, since scoring a hat-trick against Watford in September 2019.

"It has been a long time since I have scored," Silva said to BT Sport.

"I'm happy to score. It doesn't matter who scores the goals but I'm happy to score.

"Most important we are leaders for now. There is still a long way to go but still, very happy. We are doing very well, very solid at the back. We are happy with the last two games and our momentum."

The breakthrough arrived just as it looked like Villa would halt City's fine run of form.

Silva's opener was the 36th effort at goal in a dramatic match, and City's 25th of the contest.

Asked about Villa's complaints over his goal, Silva added: "I haven't checked it yet. 

"Our player was offside but when their defender touched it, he stops being offside, I think. But I haven't checked it.

"It was a very important win, a tough game for us. Just three more points and on to the next one.

"It felt like an important win because we got to the 75th minute without scoring, so to get those two goals, we are very happy."

City have now won 15 of their past 16 Premier League home games against Villa, including an on-going streak of 11 in a row.

And their forthcomig fixtures appear favourable as they look to extend their winning run.

After an FA Cup match with League Two Cheltenham Town, City face struggling trio West Brom, Sheffield United and Burnley prior to their crunch clash with champions Liverpool at Anfield on February 6.

Bernardo Silva scored a controversial first Premier League goal of the season as Manchester City beat Aston Villa 2-0 to go top of the table.

City dominated much of an entertaining encounter on a miserable evening but looked set to miss out on the chance to take over at the summit until Silva struck 11 minutes from time, albeit in contentious circumstances.

Villa boss Dean Smith was sent off for his protests after he felt Silva's goal should have been ruled out for offside against Rodri, who had won the ball back from Tyrone Mings.

Ilkay Gundogan's penalty sealed all three points to extend City's winning run to nine matches and put them top, although Manchester United can replace them when they face Fulham later on Wednesday.

City lost Kevin De Bruyne and Kyle Walker to injury but they are now unbeaten in 16 games in all competitions.

Estudiantes winger Dario Sarmiento is reportedly destined for Manchester City and the Argentine club's chairman Juan Sebastian Veron believes he offers abilities that are not common in the modern game.

Sarmiento has made just 14 league appearances for Estudiantes since being handed his debut as a 16-year-old by former Barcelona defender Gabriel Milito in October 2019.

Although he is yet to score or provide an assist in Argentina's top flight, City are reportedly willing to part with £17million to bring him to the Premier League.

His evident ability running with the ball at his feet and the fact he stands at just five feet and five inches has inevitably led to comparisons to six-time Ballon d'Or winner and Argentina captain Lionel Messi.

Veron has no doubt Sarmiento has the talent to enjoy a successful career but warned plenty of work in the right environment is needed for him to reach his potential.

"He has incredible improvement margins. To me, he has quality," Veron told Stats Perform News.

"Now a lot of clubs look for this kind of player, who runs on the flank. It is so easy for him to dribble his marker – not something so easy to see these days.

"He is fast, agile, nice left foot and great at dribbling, but he is still a project of a player.

"Will he become a great player? It depends a lot on him and on what team he will join to carry on his development. A lot of it is up to him."

A dribbling specialist

Argentina has long provided a hotbed of young talent that has been poached by the financial might of European clubs and Sarmiento looks set to move across the Atlantic Ocean in the near future.

Looking at players born after the turn of the millennium to have played at least 450 minutes in the Liga Profesional Argentina since the start of 2019-20 gives a good indication of how this burgeoning talent compares to his contemporaries.

It is his dribbling ability that has marked him out as a potential star - only Thiago Almada (20) of Velez Sarsfield has more carries with a chance created than Sarmiento (nine).

However, when looked at on a per-90-minutes basis, Sarmiento comes out on top with a league-leading rate of 1.4 compared to Almada's 1.1.

He has averaged 2.6 carries with a take on per 90 minutes, the fourth-best behind Pedro de la Vega (3.0), Alan Velasco (4.1) and Gaston Gonzalez (4.8).

Going at defenders

It is clear that Sarmiento is certainly not afraid to take people on.

He has averaged 5.4 attempted take ons per 90 minutes over the past two Liga Profesional Argentina seasons – enough to rank fifth – and has a success rate of 58 per cent. Among players fitting the aforementioned criteria that have attempted at least 20 take ons in total, that puts him eighth in the league.

Perhaps Sarmiento's success rate is affected by the fact he also looks to beat his man in dangerous areas. He has attempted 0.9 take ons in the box per 90 minutes, well clear of Franco Orozoco (0.6) who registers second in that metric. Furthermore, his 0.5 take ons with a shot per game is another league-leading mark.

It is clear there is plenty of substance to Sarmiento's play and he could become a potent force if, as Veron suggests, his talent is fostered astutely.

Manchester City and Aston Villa would have faced each other on the opening weekend of this Premier League campaign had Pep Guardiola's side not reached the final stages of the Champions League in Lisbon and earned an extra week to recuperate.

Plenty of what's happened since then - for both of these clubs and throughout the division - would have been impossible to predict, with a strange season springing surprises at every turn.

However, had City and Villa played one another in September, most observers would have confidently looked towards Kevin De Bruyne and Jack Grealish to supply the creative inspiration for their respective teams.

It is safe to say each star midfielder has lived up to his billing over the first half of the campaign.

Mutual respect

Grealish earned a long-awaited England debut earlier this season and was a bright spark when England suffered a 2-0 Nations League defeat in Belgium.

Before the match, the 25-year-old revealed he spent his final preparations casting an admiring eye over a certain member of the opposition.

"For the past 24 hours, I've been watching little clips of my favourite players like I do before every game," he told Sky Sports.

"I watch loads of clips. I watch clips of De Bruyne, I watch clips of [Philippe] Coutinho, just players that are in my position, really.

"That's what I've done since I was a little kid and I still do it to this day - I have no shame in saying that and that's what gets me going for football matches."

After the match, De Bruyne conceded Grealish had also captured his attention.

"I rate him very highly," he said. "He's somebody I mentioned before, talking to the team-mates at City, in a random conversation.

"In England they talked about creative problems in midfield, but he brings that to a team. He deserves a shot."

Those warm words from De Bruyne seemed to carry a little more weight when a move for Grealish was rumoured to be one of the topics of discussion during Guardiola's successful contract extension negotiations in November.

Given the City boss already must try to accommodate the playmaking talents of Phil Foden and Bernardo Silva around De Bruyne, it is questionable whether he needs such a reinforcement in his creative department.

However, Opta data from this season shows Grealish is doing plenty to match the reigning PFA Players' Player of the Year.

King creators

Both De Bruyne and Grealish have started 15 Premier League games apiece this season, with the latter playing one more minute overall.

In that time, the Villa man has created 55 chances to De Bruyne's 51, although City's number 17 has 10 assists to Grealish's seven following an outrageous outside-of-the-boot cross for John Stones to open the scoring in Sunday's 4-0 thrashing of Crystal Palace.

Overall, they are second and third in the Premier League's assists table, Harry Kane's fruitful relationship with Son Heung-min helping the England captain to amass 11 for Tottenham.

Manchester United talisman Bruno Fernandes separates them at the top when it comes to chances created, having crafted 54 for his Old Trafford colleagues.

Those numbers continue to look incredibly strong when projected across Europe's top five leagues.

Hakan Calhanoglu has created 59 chances for Serie A leaders Milan, although only six of those have been converted, while the continental top five is rounded out by Lyon's Memphis Depay being level with De Bruyne on 51.

In terms of assists, Kane and De Bruyne are again one and two from Bayern Munich's Thomas Muller (nine) and Roma's Henrikh Mkhitaryan (eight).

Goals, guile and grubby work

De Bruyne has fired off 57 shots this season (17 on target) to Grealish's 40 (14 on target).

However, City's designated penalty taker has only scored three, with his first Premier League goal from open play this season coming earlier in January at Chelsea.

Grealish has weighed in with five for Dean Smith's men, including a double in their logic-defying 7-2 evisceration of champions Liverpool.

Grealish has 81.2 per cent accuracy for passes ending in the final third, outstripping De Bruyne's 73.5 per cent, although the City favourite attempting 105 crosses and corners to the younger man's 51 goes some way to explaining this discrepancy.

In terms of dribble success rate, they are neck and neck again, with Grealish returning 63.8 per cent and De Bruyne 63.

Grealish has attempted 69 dribbles to his idol's 46, which does a little to explain the frequency with which he draws free-kicks.

His 73 fouls won is comfortably the highest in the division, with Palace's Wilfred Zaha (51), Liverpool's Sadio Mane (43) and Kane (40) up next.

A key reason for this could be how integral Grealish is to so much of Villa's attacking play. As per Opta, he is responsible for 11 per cent of his team's passes. By contrast, Zaha and Kane make five per cent and Mane four.

As players who cherish the ball so much, De Bruyne and his counterpart do plenty to get it back.

The UEFA midfielder of the year has made 74 recoveries, 27 tackles and seven interceptions in the Premier League this season, compared to 79 recoveries, 23 tackles and eight interceptions for Grealish.

It seems implausible that these two midfield maestros will stray too far from the thick of the action at the Etihad Stadium, which should make for a very watchable encounter.

Whether or not it amounts to a live audition for Grealish, only time will tell.

Could Harry Kane land in Paris?

With Kylian Mbappe tipped to join Real Madrid, Paris Saint-Germain are reportedly eyeing replacements.

Mauricio Pochettino has a familiar face in mind…

 

TOP STORY – POCH WANTS KANE IF MBAPPE LEAVES

Paris Saint-Germain head coach Mauricio Pochettino wants to sign Tottenham striker Harry Kane, according to El Chiringuito de Jugones.

That is if PSG star Kylian Mbappe leaves the Ligue 1 champions for LaLiga holders Real Madrid.

Pochettino coached Kane for five years at Tottenham before he was sacked by Spurs in November 2019.

 

ROUND-UP

- Sky Sport Germany claims Bayern Munich star David Alaba will not decide on his future until he has spoken to Barcelona. Marca reported that Madrid had struck a deal to sign Alaba on a free transfer at the end of the season. However, Alaba is reportedly holding out for Barca as the likes of Liverpool, Manchester United and PSG try to lure the Austria international.

Martin Odegaard has asked to leave Madrid on loan due to his lack of game time, reports Marca and Diario AS.

Romelu Lukaku has no intention of leaving Inter for City, says Express Sport. Lukaku spent two years at United before moving to Italy in 2019. Pep Guardiola's City have also been linked with Borussia Dortmund star Erling Haaland amid doubts over Sergio Aguero's future.

- Mundo Deportivo claims Manchester City defender Eric Garcia could join Barca this month or at the end of the season.

Milan are eyeing Barca's Junior Firpo on loan, while Serie A rivals Napoli are also interested, according to Calciomercato.

- Eurosport reports Tottenham are looking to prise Danny Ings away from Southampton. Ings is reportedly stalling on a new contract as he eyes a Champions League club.

Pep Guardiola has ruled out Manchester City delving into the transfer market with Sergio Aguero to again be absent when they host Aston Villa on Wednesday.

Aguero has made just five Premier League appearances this season and has missed City's past three games in all competitions while in self-isolation despite testing negative for COVID-19.

Guardiola has used Gabriel Jesus, Kevin De Bruyne and Ferran Torres in the central attacking role during the Argentina international's absence but is not interested in bringing in further options.

The City boss simply replied "no" when asked if the club could look to bolster their options in January after he confirmed Aguero would not return to face Villa.

"He is not ready for tomorrow. He is still isolating," Guardiola said at a news conference on Tuesday.

"We need Aguero, we miss him. The numbers speak for themselves. He's the best striker in our history.

"He can win games by himself and for a long time he has not been with us, but we have not sat here complaining. We moved forward with the players that we have and found alternatives."

Aymeric Laporte has not been part of a matchday squad for City since December 26 but Guardiola confirmed he is nearing a return from a thigh injury.

However, with Ruben Dias and John Stones having developed an incredible centre-back partnership, the City boss warned Laporte it will not be easy for him to regain his spot.

"He is at the last step. He is not ready for tomorrow, but he is training with us. Yesterday was the first one, today was the second," said Guardiola.

"Hopefully [back to face Cheltenham Town on Saturday]. That would be good news. We need him. We cannot play with just Stones and Ruben. We need Nathan [Ake], we need Eric [Garcia], we need Laporte.

"It depends on him [whether he can get into the starting line-up]. The quality is there so if he is in top form and his mind is open he is the best left-sided centre-back.

"He has special qualities on the ball. He has to be focused to come back as best as possible and he will have the minutes. Being in the team or not depends on the performance of everyone."

In the eight Premier League games Stones and Dias have started together, City have dropped just two points and conceded a single goal.

In the nine matches where either one of them has not started, they have conceded 12 at an average of 1.3 per game.

No Premier League defender has been involved in more clean sheets (eight) or has a superior passing accuracy (93.4 per cent) than Dias, whose 78.3 successful passes per 90 minutes are only bettered by Thiago Silva (83.8).

On Dias, Guardiola said: "We knew his quality on the pitch, we knew a bit his personality but we have been impressed at the consistency, being ready mentally and physically to play every three days.

"You always expect the best but we are more than delighted with what he has given to the team.

"[His impact] has been massive, not just with John. He has the ability to live every single action, always concentrated on what he has to do and helping his team-mates. It is not easy to find that in someone who is 23 years old."

Willy Boly had an eventful derby and there was a penalty double for Matheus Pereira as West Brom boss Sam Allardyce maintained his unbeaten record against the team he used to support as a boy.

Albion claimed a huge victory in their bid to avoid relegation from the Premier League at Molineux on Saturday, beating bitter rivals Wolves 3-2.

There was no such entertainment at Anfield on Sunday, with a hugely hyped clash between Liverpool and leaders Manchester United ending goalless, while Antonee Robinson's red card was costly as Fulham were beaten by Chelsea.

Ilkay Gundogan matched his best Manchester City goal tally for a season in a 4-0 rout of Crystal Palace, while Tottenham captain Harry Kane made his mark in Yorkshire yet again 

With the help of Opta data, we take a look at some of the quirkiest stats from the top-flight action over the weekend.

 

Boly in thick of the action as Wolves pay the penalty 

West Brom ended an eight-match winless run to claim three precious points against their big rivals Wolves.

Defender Boly became the first Wolves player to concede a penalty, provide an assist and score in a Premier League game since Adlene Guedioura in May 2011 - which was also against West Brom at Molineux.

Baggies midfielder Pereira was on target with two spot-kicks, becoming the fifth player to score a brace of penalties in a top-flight game this season. The last time there were so many penalty doubles was back in the 2010-11 campaign.

Allardyce was a Wolves fan as a youngster, but his allegiances have long gone out of the window, as the Albion head coach has not lost in 12 Premier League games against Wanderers - his longest unbeaten streak against any side.

 

Gun firing on all cylinders

Kevin De Bruyne sparkled once again as in-form City hammered Palace to go second in the table.

The midfield maestro laid on one of two goals for John Stones, taking his tally of assists for City to a landmark 100.

Gundogan is another midfielder who has caught the eye this season and the Germany international was on target with a sublime long-range finish at the Etihad Stadium.

The former Borussia Dortmund playmaker has scored four goals in his past six Premier League games, as many as he could muster in his previous 55 matches in the top flight. His tally of six for the season is the joint-most he has scored for City.

 

Kane comes up smelling of White Roses again

Prolific Spurs skipper Kane led by example yet again in a 3-1 win at bottom-of-the-table Sheffield United.

Kane scored his 19th goal of what is proving to be another outstanding season in Tottenham's first league win at Bramall Lane since 1975, having failed to secure maximum points in their previous seven visits.

England captain Kane has scored in each of his past six Premier League games in Yorkshire, a run that former Leeds United striker Mark Viduka was the last to achieve in 2003.

Leeds will have to be wary of the talismanic striker when Jose Mourinho's men return to the White Rose county for a clash at Elland Road on May 8.

 

Dire States: Rash Robinson costs Fulham

Fulham full-back Robinson was sent off late in the first half of the London derby at Craven Cottage for a rash lunge on Cesar Azpilicueta.

Chelsea had to be patient as they pushed for a winner, but Mason Mount struck to consign Scott Parker's relegation-threatened side to a 1-0 defeat.

Robinson was the eighth player from the United States to be given his marching orders in the Premier League.

The former Wigan Athletic left-back's dismissal also made Fulham the first club to have two players from the USA see red, Carlos Bocanegra being the other.

Pep Guardiola is 50 and who would begrudge Manchester City's remarkable manager a quiet celebration?

The likelihood is that Guardiola will instead be picking the pieces out of Sunday's clash with Crystal Palace and planning for Wednesday's game against Aston Villa.

Guardiola the player was a diligent servant as a defensive midfielder for Barcelona and Spain, albeit rarely the player who would light up a match.

Yet as a coach his teams have had maverick tendencies, as well as being clinical and merciless at times, as his medal collection shows.

To mark Guardiola's 'big 5-0', now is a timely moment to revisit some of the finest 5-0 wins from his coaching career.

Barcelona 5-0 Real Madrid (November 29, 2010)

Barca's 8-0 win at Almeria nine days earlier had contained a Lionel Messi hat-trick, but the Argentinian could not find the target when Jose Mourinho brought Madrid to Camp Nou.

Not to worry, for he was outstanding in a mesmerising Barcelona display, an iconic moment of the Guardiola era.

Messi ran Madrid ragged but left the scoring to others, setting up David Villa for the third and fourth goals, with Xavi, Pedro and the little-remembered Jeffren condemning Mourinho, Cristiano Ronaldo and co to a ruthless assailing in Catalonia.

"We are proud," said Guardiola, on the way to a LaLiga and Champions League double, "because the world has seen us play the way we like to play."

Barcelona 5-0 Atletico Madrid (September 24, 2011)

Guardiola's last season with Barca ultimately ended without LaLiga glory but it was a campaign that produced a statement victory over an Atletico Madrid team containing Thibaut Courtois, Diego Godin and Radamel Falcao.

Barca were rampant at Camp Nou, with a David Villa strike and Miranda's own goal putting them two up inside 15 minutes before Messi scored a quite magnificent hat-trick, all three goals containing fine dribbles and sublime link-up play.

Perhaps most significantly for the Spanish football landscape, the result hurried along the sacking of Atletico boss Gregorio Manzano, who, under three months later, would be replaced by a certain Diego Simeone.

Bayern 5-0 Eintracht Frankfurt (February 2, 2014)

Bayern Munich stormed to the Bundesliga title in Guardiola's first season, losing just twice and seeing off nearest challengers Borussia Dortmund by an astonishing 19 points.

They romped to four separate 5-0 wins over the course of that season, including a magnificent success against Eintracht Frankfurt in February, by which point the title was all but won.

Mario Gotze swept in with a wonderful strike after 12 minutes to set the tone, with further goals coming from Franck Ribery, Arjen Robben, Dante and Mario Mandzukic.

They thrashed Hamburg 5-0 just 10 days later en route to the second of eight consecutive league titles, a run which remains active.

Steaua Bucharest 0-5 Manchester City (August 16, 2016)

The Guardiola era had begun sketchily with a 2-1 home win over Sunderland three days earlier, City needing a late Paddy McNair own goal to snatch the Premier League points.

But by goodness, this was more like the fare that was expected under the new boss, City rampant in a Champions League play-off in Romania as Sergio Aguero scored his eighth hat-trick for the club, as well as missing two penalties, with David Silva and Nolito also on target.

They had 24 shots and 70.5 per cent of possession in a frightening tease of what was to come.

Manchester City 5-0 Liverpool (September 9, 2017)

Guardiola had finished his first season at City empty-handed, but this devastating performance signalled it would be a different story in 2017-18.

New recruits Ederson, Kyle Walker and Benjamin Mendy all started, and City emphatically showed they were better set up for a title push than the Liverpool team Jurgen Klopp was steadily shaping into something special.

Liverpool's Sadio Mane was sent off before half-time for a high challenge that injured goalkeeper Ederson, with City already ahead by that stage thanks to Aguero.

Gabriel Jesus then scored twice, as did Leroy Sane, and City put on a show early in their record-setting 100-point campaign. Liverpool would have their revenge with a 4-3 Anfield win in January, but the title was all but wrapped up by then.

Manchester City 5-0 Burnley (all the time)

Every day must feel like a birthday when Burnley come to town, given Guardiola's team have torched the Clarets 5-0 in their last four meetings at the Etihad Stadium.

Of course it was not always this way: City grafted for a 2-1 home win over Burnley when Fernandinho was sent off when the teams first met at Eastlands in Guardiola's debut season in England.

But lately it has been customary for Burnley to be rolled over, and Riyad Mahrez helped himself to a hat-trick in the most recent encounter, in November.

Guardiola said afterwards that such goal gluts are "not important; the important thing is winning games". You suspect, however, he rather enjoys such days. Burnley, rather less so.

John Stones "deserves the best", according to Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola.

Stones scored twice – his first Premier League goals for City – and put in an accomplished display at the back in a 4-0 demolition of Crystal Palace on Sunday.

Alongside Ruben Dias, Stones has been in imperious form, and from the 10 games the pair have started together in all competitions, City have claimed nine wins and one draw, conceding just one goal.

Indeed, with Stones and Dias proving their worth, Aymeric Laporte, a star performer in recent seasons, has been limited to four league appearances this term.

Injuries and losses of form have marred Stones' time at City, and the former Everton centre-back had lost his place in the England squad after making just 16 top-flight appearances last season.

However, despite talk of a move away, Stones stayed put to turn his form around, much to the delight of Guardiola, whose side are up to second, two points behind Manchester United.

"If it's one guy who deserves the best, it's John. He struggled a lot but he is a fantastic human being, his parents must be so proud," Guardiola told a news conference.

"He had personal problems and injuries in the past but at the moment he is settled well. Confidence is everything and he is confident for himself.

"Managers cannot give confidence but he started playing alongside Ruben and they play really well."

STONES' GAME – BY THE NUMBERS

Stones scored from both of his attempts. While his opener was a fine header from Kevin De Bruyne's exquisite cross, his second – which came after Ilkay Gundogan had doubled City's lead in delightful fashion – was a predatory finish after Dias' header was saved.

The former Barnsley defender also topped City's distribution metrics, completing 112 out of 117 attempted passes (a success rate of 95.7 per cent) – 54 of these came in Palace's half.

With 120 touches, Stones tallied up more than any other player, four ahead of Fernandinho, while he won one of his two aerial duels. In this regard, his partnership with Dias proved particularly fruitful, with the Portugal international winning three of four aerial battles.

Stones did not have to make a single tackle, with Dias again doing the dirty work in that respect, though he did gain possession six times, behind only Fernandinho (seven) and Palace's Andros Townsend (12).

DE BRUYNE AND GUNDOGAN LIGHT UP

Sharing the limelight with Stones were midfielders De Bruyne and Gundogan, who flanked Fernandinho in a 4-3-3.

De Bruyne created a game-high three chances, including the assist for Stones' opener – the Belgium playmaker's 100th in all competitions for City, with the 29-year-old creating 32 more goals than any other Premier League player since making his debut for the club in 2015.

"What can I say? The managers can help many things but one thing is the talent up front," Guardiola said of De Bruyne.

"Managers are incredibly fortunate or lucky to be in charge with this kind of player because it makes your life easier."

Not to be outdone, Gundogan was equally as sharp. The Germany international boasted the highest pass completion rate in Palace's half (96.6 per cent) of any City player with at least 10 such passes, and scored a sensational goal to put the hosts 2-0 up, with Raheem Sterling's first career goal directly from a free-kick rounding things off late on after Stones had doubled his tally.

Asked if Gundogan was playing the best football of his City career, Guardiola said: "Ilkay, the year when we won the second title when we won 14 games in a row [2018-19], he played as a holding midfielder because Fernandinho was injured and he was incredible.

"I thought it would not be possible without his cleverness and vision. I knew him when he played at Borussia Dortmund with [Jurgen] Klopp that when he plays close to the box he has a sense of goal.

"It is not easy to find a player that can play as a holding midfielder and as a number 10."

Gundogan has scored four goals in his past six league matches – as many as he had netted in his previous 55 games in the competition.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, PEP

Guardiola turns 50 on Monday and, though he thanked his players for an early birthday present, he will now be focused on Wednesday's scheduled match against Aston Villa, who have not played in the Premier League since January 1 due to a COVID-19 outbreak.

"Thank you for the players, it was a nice present. It's good," Guardiola said of being second in the standings.

"We fought a lot to be up there like many clubs and we will have to fight a lot to still be there. It is a weird season, everyone can beat everyone, it is difficult every game but I am happy for the players for another good performance and for the three points."

John Stones has explained his decision to go "back to basics" in a bid to rediscover his form for Manchester City.

Stones scored twice – his third brace for club and country – in City's 4-0 Premier League victory over Crystal Palace on Sunday.

The win, City's fifth in succession in the top flight, sent Pep Guardiola's team into second place above defending champions Liverpool, who could only draw with leaders Manchester United at Anfield.

Though Palace, shorn of the injured Wilfried Zaha, were hardly a threat, Stones and his centre-back partner Ruben Dias were rock solid as City gave boss Guardiola an early birthday present the day before he turns 50.

City are the first team to record five consecutive victories in the Premier League this season, while in the 10 games Stones and Dias have started together in all competitions, Guardiola's side have claimed nine wins, one draw and conceded just once.

Stones, a big-money signing from Everton in 2016, appeared to be surplus to requirements after an injury-hit 2019-20 campaign, with the 26-year-old handed just 12 league starts.

However, his first Premier League goals for City – and his first in the top flight since he netted for Everton against United in April 2015 – have capped off a remarkable turnaround in fortunes.

"We knew it was a tough game today. I put a lot of pressure on myself to get goals. I need to contribute by getting those goals," Stones told Sky Sports.

"I'm just trying to keep improving, building day by day on the training pitch, give a platform for the lads to express themselves up the pitch and get some goals.

"We're taking great pride in it, keeping clean sheets, it's what we're there to do. Hopefully we can keep the run going, keep as many clean sheets as we can because we know how vital they are in big games and in games like today.

"We know what'll happen if we keep getting them. We don't have to go out and score four or five goals every week. We've done it when it's 1-0 and we've fought right until the 90th minute. We kind of take the credit at the back but we've got to give credit to the whole team."

Asked how tough it had got when he was out of the side, Stones replied: "Very. It's always tough when you're not playing and you don't get a run of games, and when you do you don't perform to what you can do because maybe you've put too much pressure on yourself.

"I've gone back to basics, looked at myself first, looked at what I can improve on in every aspect. 

"You need to look yourself in the mirror and ask if I'm doing everything for myself and for the team and I did that, kept working hard, kept the faith and grinding away, keep trying to improve and I still am now. I don't think you ever stop improving yourself."

Stones' first goal was a glancing header from Kevin De Bruyne's sensational outside-of-the-boot cross – the Belgium midfielder's 100th assist for City.

"Kevin's done it over the seasons that I've been here," Stones said.

"I remember a few, off the top of my head, to Leroy [Sane] when he was here, some outrageous passes that you just don't know how he's done it.

"As he's put the ball in I knew it was coming straight to me. It's something we can only dream of and Kev can just do it when he wants."

Kevin De Bruyne created his 100th goal for Manchester City across all competitions with a stunning cross that teed up John Stones' opener against Crystal Palace.

Having previously gone close to hitting the landmark when he attempted to set up Raheem Sterling, De Bruyne reached a century of assists in supreme style in the 26th minute on Sunday.

After Palace failed to clear their lines from a corner, De Bruyne floated in a wonderful right-wing cross with the outside of his foot, dropping the delivery precisely onto the head of Stones, who celebrated his second Premier League goal and his first for City.

It means the Belgium playmaker has now created 31 more Premier League goals than any other player since he made his debut for City in 2015.

Of his 100 assists, 75 have come in the Premier League, from 165 appearances, while the 29-year-old has crafted 15 goals in the Champions League, from 37 games played.

A further five have come in the FA Cup, with four in the EFL Cup – which City have won four times during De Bruyne's time with the club – and one assist has come in Champions League qualification.

Will a Juventus-Paul Pogba reunion become a reality?

The future of Manchester United star continues to dominate headlines.

A move back to Turin could be on the cards for Pogba.

 

TOP STORY – JUVE TO MAKE POGBA OFFER

Serie A champions Juventus will try to prise Paul Pogba from Manchester United at the end of the season, according to the Calciomercato.

Pogba appears set to leave United following the 2020-21 campaign after his agent Mino Raiola claimed the French midfielder was unhappy in Manchester.

Real Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain have been linked but Juve, who signed Pogba from United in 2012 before losing him to the Red Devils four years later, want to bring the World Cup winner back to Turin.

 

ROUND-UP

- The Telegraph reports Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola will be given £200million to spend on new players in the next transfer window. Borussia Dortmund star Erling Haaland and Inter forward Romelu Lukaku are on the list of potential targets, as well as Benfica's Darwin Nunez amid doubts over Sergio Aguero 's future. Haaland has also been linked with neighbours United , Madrid , Barca , Liverpool and Juve .

Bayern Munich are interested in Madrid defender Eder Militao , claims Mundo Deportivo. It comes as Bayern look to replace David Alaba , who is set to leave the Bundesliga champions on a free transfer. Alaba has been tipped to join Madrid .

Milan  are close to re-signing star pair Gianluigi Donnarumma and Hakan Calhanoglu , says Tuttosport. Corriere dello Sport reports Milan are also nearing a deal to sign veteran forward Mario Mandzukic .

- The Athletic claims Mesut Ozil is poised to leave Arsenal for Turkish giants Fenerbahce after reaching an agreement in principle to terminate his Gunners contract.

- The Transfer Window Podcast claims Madrid are considering the possibility of using Eden Hazard in a deal to lure Kylian Mbappe from PSG.

Memphis Depay has been strongly tipped to move to Barca , however, Ok Diario reports the Lyon captain could join Madrid following Luka Jovic's loan return to Eintracht Frankfurt.

Pep Guardiola has no interest in the outcome of Liverpool versus Manchester United, with his focus only on finding a way to defeat Crystal Palace.

Manchester City host Palace in the Premier League on Sunday, by which point champions Liverpool will have taken on United.

Guardiola was asked who he thought would come out on top in the big clash at Anfield, but swiftly made it clear there was only one fixture he was focused on.

"Crystal Palace," he replied. "It's the only thing I want - I want to beat them. The rest, honestly, I don't care. 

"The last two seasons against Crystal Palace at home we got one point. We lost and we drew. Our performance in Selhurst Park was much better than the Etihad Stadium. 

"That's what the only concern I have is - winning against Crystal Palace. 

"We will play knowing the result [between Liverpool and United], because they play earlier than us, but I don't know."

No side has kept more Premier League clean sheets this season than City (eight) and they are only four points behind leaders United with a game in hand.

Despite their fine form, Guardiola is not concerned with the two sides ahead of them in the table getting all the attention.

"I didn't talk with the players about that," added Guardiola. "Teams make confidence and make a positive for the next game they are going to play by how you performed in the last one.

"I don't think the players are more optimistic or angry or upset because the people consider us not contenders this season, or maybe United or Liverpool are better than us.

"Against Brighton [in the 1-0 win last time out] we played good. In the moments we didn't play good Brighton were brilliant. 

"It is best to visualise we are in a good moment, because when you dream you want to be top of the league, you want to be in a better position when you don't play good, you are not going to achieve it. We won't get it."

City will be eyeing an eighth straight victory in all competitions and a fifth consecutive Premier League win when they take on Palace.

Only United (11) are on a longer current unbeaten run in the Premier League than City (eight), but Guardiola does not pay attention to such sequences.

He added: "When we have had incredible runs I have never thought about how many wins or how many marathons we have to do to win something. 

"When we won 18 games in a row in the season we got 100 points, after the win in the second game we said, 'okay, let's try to win the next one'. 

"Then the next, then after that the next one. I never expect my players to win a lot of games. I want to win the next one, and the next one is Crystal Palace. 

"This is the best way. I don't care how many games we are able to win or not win in a row. Absolutely zero. 

"It is just Crystal Palace, Wilfried Zaha, Eberechi Eze, Christian Benteke, Roy Hodgson, Luka Milivojevic - this is the only way I am concerned since the day after we beat Brighton."

DE BRUYNE EYES THREE FIGURES

Kevin De Bruyne has racked up four assists in his last six appearances for City and will be looking to continue a strong individual run in matches with Palace.

The Belgium international has been involved in eight goals in 10 Premier League games against Palace (two goals and six assists) – only against Southampton (two goals, seven assists) has he been involved in more in the competition.

No Premier League player has provided more assists in all competitions than his 14 this season.

In-form De Bruyne is hoping to reach a milestone against Palace, as his next assist will put him on to 100 for the club in all competitions.

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