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."

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."

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 scored twice as Manchester City moved into second place in the Premier League by sweeping aside Crystal Palace 4-0 at the Etihad Stadium.

With league leaders Manchester United and defending champions Liverpool sharing the spoils in a goalless stalemate at Anfield, City took full advantage to move within two points of first place.

On top of another top-class defensive display alongside Ruben Dias, Stones broke the deadlock 26 minutes in with his first league goal for City – Kevin De Bruyne the creator with a sensational cross to bring up his 100th assist for the club.

Ilkay Gundogan doubled the lead early in the second half prior to Stones celebrating an unlikely second, and a classy finish from Raheem Sterling wrapped up a fifth successive league win for Pep Guardiola's ever-improving City.

In search of his milestone moment, De Bruyne attempted to tee up Sterling with a quick exchange of passes in the 26th minute, when the Belgian might have been better served to shoot.

Yet his 100th assist did not take long to arrive. His initial poor corner was cleared, but De Bruyne was found by Sterling and, with the outside of his right foot, placed a wonderful cross onto the head of Stones, who turned in his first league goal since he scored for Everton in April 2015.

Gabriel Jesus was unable to beat Vicente Guaita after latching onto Gundogan's flick-on, but the Germany midfielder took matters into his own hands 11 minutes after the restart, robbing Andros Townsend on the edge of Palace's box and dispatching a fantastic finish into the top-right corner.

Jordan Ayew mustered Palace's second shot soon after, though it was blocked by Dias, who then played a key part in City's third.

Dias' header was parried out by Guaita, but the Portuguese's defensive partner Stones was on hand to drill in his second.

Sterling had the final say, the England forward – who missed a late penalty against Brighton and Hove Albion – curling a sublime free-kick into the top corner to add further gloss to a resounding triumph.

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.

Kevin De Bruyne's gesture during the closing stages of Manchester City's Premier League game against Brighton and Hove Albion was one of selflessness towards a team-mate and friend, but also one that backfired.

De Bruyne ceded his penalty-taking duties after drawing a foul from Albion goalkeeper Robert Sanchez in stoppage time at a sodden Etihad Stadium, giving Raheem Sterling the chance to step up.

Unfortunately, the England international ballooned his attempt into the deserted North Stand, leaving Pep Guardiola's side with a few more needlessly nervy minutes to see out a 1-0 win.

A key contributor as City racked up six major trophies in the three previous campaigns under Guardiola, Sterling is yet to fully hit his stride this time around, even as his colleagues in sky blue have moved their collective level through the gears over recent weeks to sit menacingly poised in the Premier League title race.

The Brighton miss means he has scored only three goals in his past 18 appearances in all competitions, a run of four in three either side of the October international break proving to be something of a false dawn.

"He’s an incredibly important player for us," Guardiola said of Sterling ahead of Sunday's meeting with Crystal Palace, which will come as the immediate dust settles on the top-two clash between Manchester United and Liverpool at Anfield.

"Everything we have done in the past, without him would not have been possible."

True as that might be, Sterling relocating his past form would certainly benefit City in an unpredictable season of ample possibilities.

In 2019-20, Sterling enjoyed the most prolific season of his career, scoring 20 goals in the Premier League and 31 overall.

His Premier League haul outperformed an xG of 17.3, coming from 97 shots, although he was even more clinical in those terms the last time City won the Premier League in 2018-19.

In that year of a domestic treble, within 25 in all competitions, Sterling's 17 top-flight goals from 77 attempts had an xG value of 13.7.

This season, he has four Premier League goals and an xG of 3.6. His 29 shots include five unsuccessful efforts from inside the six-yard box.

Close-range misses have become an unwelcome feature in Sterling's game, most gallingly when he blazed over with the goal at his mercy during City's chastening Champions League quarter-final defeat to Lyon in August.

Before last season, the 26-year-old had never dipped below a 50 per cent conversion rate on what Opta rank as "big chances".  He was most efficient in this regard when he scored 18 of 31 (58 per cent) in 2018-19.

That percentage dropped to 39.6 in 2019-20, as he scored 23 big chances and spurned 35. This term, five scored and 13 missed means a further drop to 27.8 per cent within this smaller sample size.

Sterling's overall shot conversion of 14.3 per cent is its lowest since 11.7 per cent in Guardiola's first trophy-less season at City in 2016-17.

So, in a talent stacked squad, should he be fearing for his place? In short, no.

"He will score goals, he will make assists and he wants to help in all departments," Guardiola insisted.

"Normally wingers are not able do that but he can help us. I'm more than happy to have him here with us."

A player holding himself to the high standards Sterling does is unlikely to take any comfort in the old head-tousling adage of "he was there to miss 'em", but there is something to be said for his relentless desire to contribute to the cause, irrespective of where his individual form resides.

Guardiola certainly views him as indispensable. Sterling has played 24 games and completed 1,864 minutes this season, second only to Premier League ever-present Rodri in the City squad.

He has had more shots on target (27) and attempted (88) and completed (41) more dribbles than any other City player. In terms of overall shots (38) and assists (six) he is only bettered by Kevin De Bruyne.

Sterling has created 30 chances for others and, despite his struggles in front of goal, remains joint-second in the squad's goalscoring charts on seven alongside Ferran Torres, one shy of midweek matchwinner Phil Foden.

The former Liverpool youngster's previous goal, when he scored decisively at Southampton in December, made him the first player to reach 150 goal involvements for Guardiola's City.

And, although the Brighton game ended in personal disappointment, his introduction from the bench was his 220th appearance under Guardiola. No player has been selected more frequently by the Catalan tactician in his celebrated career, with a certain Lionel Messi second on that list.

It is that overall big picture of absolute trust and an unquenchable thirst to contribute to the wider cause that means Sterling will remain one of Guardiola's most trusted performers, even if his dry spell goes on a little longer.

Pep Guardiola does not want Premier League footballers to become scapegoats for the ongoing coronavirus crisis in the UK.

The league and the Professional Footballers' Association have both issued directives this week urging players to abide by COVID-19 protocols when celebrating goals.

Those interventions came after England's deputy chief medical officer Professor Jonathan Van-Tam said footballers should stop making "avoidable" contact with one another after goals were scored.

Manchester City boss Guardiola was recently criticised for defending Benjamin Mendy after his full-back celebrated New Year's Eve with three people from outside his household, in contravention of the UK government's coronavirus guidelines.

Kyle Walker and Phil Foden have also erred during the pandemic but, speaking at a news conference to preview Sunday's Premier League game against Crystal Palace, Guardiola insisted the behaviour of footballers - both good and bad - should be viewed in a wider context.

"We want to follow the protocols, I understand how sensitive everything is. I don’t think the problem, in the UK now, is because of the players," said the former Barcelona boss, who lost his mother to coronavirus last year.

"We can do as much as we can, as best as possible. When someone breaks the rules, like sometimes happens, it's not good.

"All the clubs have been clear. We know about the situation. Hopefully we cannot score a lot goals, we can be careful like in the beginning not to hug much but sometimes it's difficult - if you lose the emotion it's difficult.

"On the other side, I understand. A lot of businesses cannot do their jobs, they are closing. We are fortunate we can play football and do our job

"All the clubs, all the manager, doctors, all the clubs in Premier League, Champions League, Championship, League One and League Two, want to follow the rules. We are concerned about how difficult and how important the situation is in the UK. A lot of people are dying, unfortunately, and are infected every day.

"We are going to do our best to follow the new rules. The government and the scientists inform us what to do.

"But, please, the situation in the UK is not because of the football players. Don’t blame absolute responsibility on the players. It is a pandemic situation all around the world."

Eric Garcia is available to return for the Palace game after a positive coronavirus test, although reports in Spain suggest the young defender could complete a long-mooted move to Barcelona this month.

"I hope not but maybe the people in Barcelona know better, more than me," said Guardiola, who conceded the 20-year-old's departure is a possibility.

"I don’t know what's going to happen, but maybe it's going to happen."

City have a game in hand on the top two after going eight games unbeaten in the Premier League and could make up further ground this weekend as champions Liverpool host leaders Manchester United at Anfield.

Nevertheless, they have taken one point from their previous two home matches against Palace and Guardiola is duly wary of Roy Hodgson's side.

"A team like Crystal Palace knows exactly what they have to do," he added. "They are so, so clever. We saw it [in Thursday's 0-0 draw] against Arsenal.

"They can produce a lot of quality up front. It was really tough the last seasons here when we lost and we drew but we will try to convince the players to do our job."

Pep Guardiola suggested Manchester City got a reality check against Brighton and Hove Albion despite moving third with a fourth consecutive Premier League win.

Phil Foden's goal was enough for a 1-0 victory that took City back to within four points of leaders Manchester United with a game in hand.

It was another win and another clean sheet for City – their eighth shutout, a league high – but Guardiola's men did not quite hit the heights of previous performances.

The manager saw that as a positive, however, believing it was important for his side to come through a tricky test against strugglers Brighton.

"For the next games that we have in January, February, this is the best thing that could happen today," Guardiola told BBC Sport.

"There's some rumours outside the team, in the team after Stamford Bridge, [Manchester] United, and the reality is today, the game that we played today.

"It's nice to play the way we played. For 60, 70 minutes, we were so good.

"The first half was the way we have to play; the second half we struggled more because of the quality of the opponent - not because we were lazy or a lack of concentration, not these kinds of things."

City won despite missing a late penalty through Raheem Sterling, their seventh Premier League spot-kick failure since the start of last season, of which the England forward has accounted for three.

Sterling had replaced Foden, who was enthused by City's performance while acknowledging room for improvement.

"I feel like we're back to our best," Foden said. "We're definitely taking confidence from the last few results.

"Today I still thought we could have done better, but we dug deep to get the win. Overall, I'm really proud of the team and how we kept going to the final whistle. Overall, it's a great result."

It was a seventh win from seven Premier League meetings with Brighton, and City now intend to turn their focus to Crystal Palace next on Sunday.

"We know that we have a game in hand, but we just have to think of the next opponent and not think too far ahead," said Foden, now City's top scorer with eight in all competitions.

"We just want to keep going with this form and push to win the league, hopefully."

Manchester City's 2020-21 Premier League title bid has been one of unlikely storylines and standout players.

Whether it's the resurgence of John Stones, helming the most miserly defence in England's top flight alongside record signing Ruben Dias and leaving the highly touted Aymeric Laporte out in the cold as a result, or a rotating cast of attackers impressing as emergency centre forwards in the absence of Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus, it pays to expect the unexpected from Pep Guardiola's squad.

Perhaps the most surprising development has been Joao Cancelo's transformation from expensive and unreliable back-up to a key man pushing City's game and maybe even Guardiola's vaunted idea of football to new heights.

"He arrived last season, he was confused in the beginning. He expected something we could not offer him," the City boss said of the Portugal full-back on the eve of Wednesday's Premier League match against Brighton and Hove Albion, where victory would move his side to within a point of champions Liverpool with a game in hand.

Cancelo arrived from Juventus with a £60million price tag – a sizeable chunk of which was remunerated as Danilo moved in the opposite direction – and proceeded to start fewer than half of City's 58 games across all competitions after his move.

What's more, he seemed ill at ease with the tactical demands placed upon him by Guardiola, such as switching and interchanging positions frequently during matches. The battle to be first choice at right-back seemed unfairly skewed in favour of Kyle Walker, one of the most consistent performers of the Catalan's tenure at the Etihad Stadium.

"Last season he struggled a bit with a new club, new ideas, the way we wanted to play," Guardiola confirmed

Alongside Rodri, who arrived from Atletico Madrid for a similar outlay, Cancelo became a poster boy of a failed campaign for many City fans, where a third straight EFL Cup success could not make up for Liverpool romping clear to the Premier League title.

Despite being an ever present in the Premier League this time around, Rodri still seemingly has more to do to convince the masses. However, first when filling in at left-back and more recently at right-back as Walker convalesced following a COVID-19 positive, Cancelo has consistently caught the eye.

"Now he has had more time and helps us to do something we need," Guardiola said. "He was outstanding all the season, playing at a high, high level."

Carrying City forward and backing up De Bruyne

From Dani Alves rampaging down the Barcelona right to Phillip Lahm becoming an auxiliary midfielder late in his career, Guardiola's best teams have usually featured a full-back doing something a little bit special.

During this month's 3-1 and 2-0 wins at Chelsea and Manchester United in the Premier League and EFL Cup respectively – arguably City's best two performances of 2020-21 – Cancelo excelled, roving forward and often in-field from a nominal right-back position, his combination of technical skills and physicality to the fore.

While at Bayern and blessed with the services of Lahm and David Alaba, Guardiola pioneered a gambit whereby his full-backs could tuck inside to bolster the defensive midfield position.

He still uses this tactic at City, but Cancelo has generally caused damage from more advanced starting points in the midfield.

"Oleks [Zinchenko] can play there too," Guardiola said when discussing Cancelo's role. "Benjamin [Mendy] and Kyle Walker can play in different positions but it depends on the opponent – which opponent we can use [the full-back] inside, outside."

The 26-year-old's ability to drive forward with possession has been to the fore. According to Opta, he has created eight chances from carries, including an assist, while having two shots himself.

This is a string Mendy and Walker do not appear to have to their bows, as they have one shot-creating carry each this season.

Cancelo's frequent presence in opposition territory has contributed to him being ranked second in the City squad in terms of chances created (24), passes ending in the final third (272) and passes played in the box (63) in the Premier League this season, with top spot in all categories belonging to Kevin De Bruyne.

Only De Bruyne, Riyad Mahrez and Raheem Sterling have completed more dribbles than Cancelo (16), a player who seems to have given a new dimension to a City team that had come to look stale during the early weeks of the season in the aftermath of David Silva and Leroy Sane's departures.

"It's especially about their quality," Guardiola added. "It's not about 'okay, I want to play this player in this position', I have to know if he can do it for his qualities. That's all.

"[Cancelo] can do it, but he can do it from outside as well. This alternative that he can give us as a team is so important. Honestly, it's so important."

When Javi Lopez sat down to speak to Stats Perform News, Adelaide United's star recruit could not hide his smile as the interview shifted to a familiar face – Mauricio Pochettino.

Pochettino was the man who gave Lopez his senior debut with Espanyol in 2009.

Lopez never looked back as he went on to captain Espanyol and, until 2020, spent his entire senior career with the Periquitos before their shock relegation from LaLiga last season.

As Lopez settles in Australia and Pochettino takes charge of Ligue 1 champions Paris Saint-Germain, the impact of the former Espanyol head coach is not lost on the versatile 34-year-old.

"What can I tell you about my experience with Mauricio Pochettino? He was the coach that made me debut in the first division, thanks to him afterwards I could have a great career in Espanyol for 11 years. I am thankful and I only have good words for him," Lopez told Stats Perform News.

"His evolution hasn't surprised me because I could see that he was going to be a top coach because his way of coaching, because he surrounded himself with great staff. He has no limits, he will coach the best teams in the world for sure."

Like former Espanyol team-mate and skipper Victor Sanchez – who is now playing for A-League outfit Western United – Lopez finds himself playing out of Europe for the first time and in Australia.

Adelaide have a rich history with Spaniards – Barcelona legend Guillermo Amor led a Reds team boasting countrymen Isaias, Pablo Sanchez and Sergio Cirio to the club's first A-League championship almost five years ago.

Lopez is the latest Spaniard to call Adelaide home, thanks to some help from ex-Reds captain Isaias.

"After many years of my career, I wanted to change, a big one. When the opportunity of coming here aroused I talked to Isaias, with Juande, who was playing for Perth Glory and is a great friend of mine," Lopez said. "I talked to my family and we decided to come here."

"I think that the A-League is a very strong league physically, quite unknown in Spain but people would be surprised of its great level, the matches are very entertaining, dynamic, physical," he continued. "From what I could see here, the club and the coach [Carl Veart] are doing a great job, the team is very good."

While Adelaide have won back-to-back FFA Cup titles, the club have fallen short in the A-League since reigning supreme in 2016.

Adelaide missed out on the finals last season, and that is something Lopez wants to change in 2020-21 – the veteran buoyed by four points from two games to start to the coronavirus-interrupted campaign.

"Expectations are clear: to be in the top six, to play play-offs and to finish as high as possible. Why not? I have said that before, the team is very well compensated and very competitive," Lopez said. "On the first match of the league against Western United I could confirm how well we work together thanks to the job of the coach.

"I loved the team's proposal, how they played, the intensity, how they fought for every ball, the pressure after losing the ball, I really liked it. Like [Atletico Madrid head coach] Diego Simeone says, his now worldwide famous sentence: 'We need to go match by match'. But the expectations are to finish in the top six, probably something difficult because in football all teams compete. If we keep performing at the previous level I think that is possible."

Lopez brings a wealth of experience to Adelaide – he ranks third for most Espanyol appearances across all competitions, only behind Raul Tamudo and Pochettino following 11 years at RCDE Stadium.

Wearing the captain's armband, Lopez featured in 17 LaLiga matches in 2019-20 as Espanyol were painfully condemned to the second tier of Spanish football for the first time since 1993-94.

"To talk about Espanyol makes me feel emotional, they are an historic club of LaLiga," Lopez said. "I might sound too romantic, but for me Espanyol is everything: my club, my house… I was there 13 years. I gained a feeling that will remain with me forever. If I say it is an honour I might be short, if I say that I am proud I might be short.

"It was a dream to play for Espanyol and to be able to take the captain's armband during many years. Even if I say that it was a dream, I am being short in the description, it has been more than a dream. I had to work really hard to reach that point. I always gave my best, my conscious is very peaceful on this regard. I cannot tell much more, except for that I would love that we would return to the first division at the end of this season."

Lopez also experienced the Derbi Barceloni – a derby dominated by Lionel Messi's Barcelona – and he added: "Sincerely it was one of the games that we wait with hunger. For all of us it was our game, we lived in a city where there is much difference in term of repercussion and media. Barcelona always gathers much more attention than Espanyol, so it was always a chance to reclaim ourselves as a great club.

"We are weapons, with our feelings to our colours, which allow us to compete with anyone. It's true that in the last decade there were very unbalanced derbies because of their great team, but still it was our chance to reclaim how proud we feel about us, our unique feeling. Our pride to be 'Pericos'." 

Pep Guardiola believes he should shoulder the blame for Manchester City's struggles earlier this season.

City can move to within a point of Liverpool if they beat Brighton and Hove Albion at the Etihad Stadium on Wednesday - the first of two games they have in hand on the reigning champions.

Guardiola's side have been bolstered by a 13-match unbeaten run, spanning four competitions, and the sort of consistency that appeared beyond them as they spluttered through the opening weeks of 2020-21.

Still nursing the hangover from a humbling 3-1 Champions League quarter-final defeat at the hands of Lyon in August, they won only three of their opening eight Premier League games this term.

Recent victories over Chelsea in the top flight and Manchester United in the EFL Cup semi-finals have seen City look something far more like their old selves.

Manager Guardiola feels this is in part because the team are back in tune with his principles - something that suffered as last season bled into this in the absence of normal preparations.

"From day one [we had these principles]. We lost it a bit this season, that was my fault - the message was not clear but we came back a little bit [to] the principles," he said.

"Especially the reason [for poor form] was because the players need time to get the best condition after no pre-season.

"It’s normal that, after good results and performances, the people visualise again that we can do it again in the way we did it in the past. And that is the way we have to continue."

Guardiola also feels City's improvement is down to them doing their work more smartly during games than they were earlier in the campaign.

"The only difference is that we run less, we were playing running too much," Guardiola said.

"When you play football you have to walk – or run much, much less.

"Without the ball you have to run. But with the ball you stay more in the position and let the ball run, not you. And we improved in these games, in these terms."

Tracking data collected from this season's Premier League games does not exactly bear out Guardiola's point but might align with the greater discipline he alludes to.

In the 3-1 triumph at Stamford Bridge earlier this month, the 116.7 kilometres City covered collectively was their most in any league match this term, with their 163 sprints second only to 166 in the 1-0 victory at Southampton in mid-December that launched an ongoing winning run of six matches on three fronts.

A feature common to both those games was each of Guardiola's recognised strikers, Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus, being sidelined.

A rotating cast of attacking midfielders have taken turns to lead the line and City's shots per game (15.4 with Aguero and/or Jesus, 15.8 without) and goals per game (1.6 with Aguero and/or Jesus, 1.7 without) remain consistent.

Guardiola's team were striker-less at the beginning of the humiliating 5-2 home defeat to Leicester City in September, although youth team centre-forward Liam Delap came on when the score was 1-1.

A draw at Leeds United followed and in the four games since when neither Aguero nor Jesus has been available - versus Sheffield United, Southampton, Newcastle United and Chelsea - City have won each time.

"We have to adapt the quality we have, unfortunately it's a long time without Sergio," Guardiola added.

"Gabriel has been good but had COVID. But we have enough players with the quality playing wide and in the middle so we adapt with the players we have right now."

Jesus is in contention to face Brighton but Aguero continues to self-isolate after coming into close contact with someone who tested positive for coronavirus.

Phil Foden still has plenty of room for improvement, says Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola.

Foden's long-range strike against Birmingham City in the third round of the FA Cup was his seventh goal of the season in all competitions - making him City's joint top scorer alongside Raheem Sterling.

The 20-year-old also made his England senior breakthrough this season, netting twice in the 4-0 Nations League thrashing of Iceland in November.

At club level, Foden has amassed his impressive return - he also has five assists - despite not being an automatic choice in Guardiola's first XI.

The circumstances of a coronavirus outbreak at the club is a contributing factor to an unbroken run of three successive first-team starts, although a goal at Chelsea in the Premier League and an assist for John Stones in the EFL Cup semi-final at Manchester United have made a strong case for him to remain.

"He is playing like he played always, high standards in all departments," Guardiola told a news conference ahead of Wednesday's match against Brighton and Hove Albion.

"He still has big margins to improve because it would be bad news if he could not improve at the age he is.

"But from day one I have been delighted, especially with his behaviour. The quality will do the rest.

City have three consecutive home games in the space of eight days on their immediate agenda - a chance to bolster their title challenge even before considering Liverpool and Manchester United are set to take points off one another this weekend.

Even though his team appear to be back to their swashbuckling best despite trying circumstances, Guardiola remains wary of the challenges at hand.

"Brighton are a joy to watch, a joy to analyse," he said, before underlining his admiration for Seagulls boss Graham Potter.

"At the same time, when you see them you are concerned about the quality. I said to the players that we will have to be in the highest standards to complete against them. They have better stats [than their league position] in all the departments except the final third.

"I am a big fan of Graham Potter. We faced him for the first time with Swansea. Everyone [in Potter's teams] plays in his position and the ball comes to them.

"They have the courage to play. I like a lot how they play and it will be a good test after this amount of games."

Considering a 13-match unbeaten run on all fronts, Guardiola added: "The momentum can arrive and disappear in one instant.

"We cannot forget the teams we beat recently especially in Premier League and Carabao Cup - two strong teams away and we did well.

"But the momentum can disappear, we have to do it again. Especially for the way we are playing."

City remain without injured defenders Aymeric Laporte and Nathan Ake, while Sergio Aguero will continue to self-isolate, with youngsters Cole Palmer, Eric Garcia and Adrien Bernabe, and third-choice goalkeeper Scott Carson in the same situation.

Ederson, Ferran Torres and Tommy Doyle should be available to return following their own COVID-related absences.

Manchester City striker Sergio Aguero is in isolation after coming into contact with someone who tested positive for coronavirus.

Aguero was expected to feature in Sunday's FA Cup clash with Birmingham City at the Etihad Stadium after recovering from knee and hamstring problems.

However, he was not in the matchday squad, with Gabriel Jesus starting the 3-0 victory over the Championship side.

Manager Pep Guardiola later confirmed that 32-year-old Aguero is isolating despite returning a negative test for COVID-19.

"Unfortunately, he was in contact more than usual with one person who is positive," Guardiola said after the match. "He must isolate for a few days.

"I don't know exactly because he has been tested like all of us six times in the last 10-15 days so it is negative. Today I think he was negative too but the protocols says in some cases isolate, and in other cases we still play football.

"He was not able to play today."

Aguero, whose contract expires at the end of the season, has only made three starts for City in all competitions in 2020-21.

In his absence on Sunday, two goals from Bernardo Silva and another from Phil Foden secured City's place in the fourth round of the cup.

Guardiola's men return to Premier League action at home to Brighton and Hove Albion on Wednesday and host Crystal Palace next Sunday.

Pep Guardiola does not view himself as a deal maker with regards to any transfer ambitions Manchester City might have towards Lionel Messi.

Messi sought to end a career-long association with Barca in the aftermath of their humiliating 8-2 Champions League quarter-final loss to Bayern Munich, with City then widely viewed as the frontrunners for his signature.

However, Barcelona disputed Messi's assertion that a clause in his contract allowing him to leave for free at the end of the 2019-20 campaign remained valid, and the Argentina superstar stayed at Camp Nou.

Speaking to La Sexta at the end of last month, Messi pledged not to decide his future until the end of this season, while also outlining his "dream" of living in the United States.

This makes a deal involving a reunion with his old mentor Guardiola, plus an option to switch to City's MLS affiliate New York City, look theoretically attractive.

But speaking ahead of Sunday's FA Cup third-round clash against Birmingham City, the former Barca and Bayern boss refused to fan any flames of a potential transfer inferno.

"He is a player for another club, I'm sorry. Always I try to answer your questions but I'm not… he is a player from Barcelona," Guardiola said.

"About the transfer market, you know my opinion, it's about Txiki [Begiristain, City's director of football]. I don't like to talk about players who are not here or players maybe extending their contract.

"Always I believe the best way to talk about this is behind the scenes because my comments will not solve or break some deal, especially the players who are not here.

"I respect a lot all the players who play in other teams."

Guardiola did express a surprise contract wish when it came to the future of another international in his thirties.

Former England goalkeeper Scott Carson has spent the past season and a half on loan at City from Derby County, serving as an experienced third-choice option.

He is yet to play a minute of senior football for Guardiola - something that will not change this weekend after a positive coronavirus test - but the manager insists Carson's influence upon Ederson, Zack Steffen and the squad as a whole has been invaluable.

"One keeper who is so important for us is Scott Carson," he said of the 35-year-old. "He is like our captain behind the scenes.

"He is not noticed because he is the third keeper, but in the locker room he is another captain.

"It is so important and hopefully he can stay longer with us in the next years."

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