Ole Gunnar Solskjaer hailed a "fantastic" winning goal from Paul Pogba at Fulham but refused to be drawn on Manchester United's chances of winning the Premier League.

United returned to the top of the table with a 2-1 victory at Craven Cottage after Manchester City briefly moved to the summit a 2-0 win over Aston Villa earlier on Wednesday.

Ademola Lookman capitalised on poor United defending to give Fulham an early lead, but Edinson Cavani equalised in the first half and Pogba won it with a stunning left-foot strike after 65 minutes.

The Red Devils are unbeaten in 17 away games in the top flight, matching their longest ever run set back in 1999, and lead City by two points, although their neighbours have a game in hand.

United again showed their character to mount a fightback and have won seven Premier League games this season after going behind.

Solskjaer told BT Sport: "I think we started slow but after their goal I felt we played well. We needed to wake up and after that we played really well.

"We don't do offsides really, we should follow the run. We had not woken up but good reaction."

Pogba has scored the winner in two of United's last three games after coming in from the cold and Solskjaer is pleased with the progress the France midfielder has made.

"It was a fantastic goal by Paul and we had some other chances to finish the game but of course when it is just one goal and the players they put on it is going to be like heart in your mouth," said the United boss.

"He [Pogba] has really come on. He is fit, he can play in midfield and he can play wide. That is key with Paul, getting him match fit and running fit and he is at the moment. He played very well."

It is now 13 Premier League games without defeat for United, but Solskjaer again fended off talk of a title challenge.

The former United and Norway striker said: "It is always going to be talked about that when you are halfway through and top of the league.

"But we are not thinking about this, we just have to go one game at a time. It is such an unpredictable season."

Paul Pogba will continue to play with a smile on his face as long as Manchester United keep winning, he explained after another decisive Premier League strike.

United reclaimed top spot with a 2-1 victory at Fulham on Wednesday, moving back ahead of Leicester City and Manchester City after their wins over Chelsea and Aston Villa respectively.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's men triumphed having conceded first away from home for the seventh time in seven attempts this term with Pogba striking the winner after Edinson Cavani had cancelled out Ademola Lookman's early opener.

Pogba's effort was a fine left-footed blast from outside the area, his first league effort with his weaker foot from this range since January 2015 when he was still at Juventus.

It was a goal the midfielder revelled in, as he told BT Sport: "I hit it well. I didn't expect the left foot would be like this, but we try.

"If you don't shoot, you don't know what's going to happen. I'm really glad that the ball went in. It was a beautiful goal and a beautiful victory - that's the most important."

That strike marked the second time this month Pogba has fired United to victory, also netting the only goal at Burnley.

Yet he has also missed big chances - opportunities Opta would expect him to score - against Aston Villa and Liverpool since the start of 2021, with a wasteful attempt at Anfield on Sunday costing United two points.

Explaining his emotions after responding with a big goal, Pogba said: "It's not like I apologised, but I was really mad; I was really mad that I was close to the goal and maybe I should have done better.

"Today it went in so I'm really happy for that. The most important is that we had the win today, because it was a hard one, a very mature one.

"We had to defend and we knew it would be like this. We knew it and we've done it the hard way, the beautiful way. It's beautiful to win like that."

The broadcaster suggested Pogba, maligned for much of his United career, looked to be enjoying himself on the pitch in an all-action display that included more passes (80) and more passes in the opposition half (56) than any other player while leading the Red Devils in tackles (four), interceptions (three) and possession gains (nine).

"I love winning," he replied. "It's all about winning. I will always be happy when I win and I will always be happy when I'm on the pitch.

"Today we won, so I'm happy; the day we lose, I will be angry again. This is me."

And United cannot afford any slip-ups, with City, who have played a game fewer, and Leicester just two points back.

"We just know that we have to get our result. We knew we had to win and that's it," Pogba said.

"It's the Premier League, so you know it's always hard. It will never be easy. These are big teams as well, very close on points, so we have to do us. That's it."

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."

Paul Pogba's sensational strike sent Manchester United back to the top of the Premier League as a 2-1 victory at Fulham extended their unbeaten away run to a record-equalling 17 matches.

United had slipped below both Leicester City and rivals Manchester City in the prior 24 hours but had a response at Craven Cottage despite trailing again to Ademola Lookman's early effort on Wednesday.

It was the seventh time Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side had conceded first on the road in the league this season, yet goals from Edinson Cavani and, in spectacular fashion, Pogba ensured this encounter ended in the same fashion as the previous six with a United win.

The Red Devils have not lost a league fixture away from Old Trafford in more than a year and their 17-game streak now matches the club's Premier League benchmark, set in 1999 when Solskjaer was a player under Alex Ferguson.

That sequence stretched across consecutive title-winning campaigns and United will hope to be celebrating again come May, although they were given another scare by Fulham with just five minutes on the clock.

Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa's pass exploited a gaping hole in the visiting defence to find Lookman onside and in the clear, able to steady himself before finishing beyond David de Gea.

But Bruno Fernandes led the United response. They kept their attack alive after his left-footed shot bounced back out off the post and the midfielder's low cross was spilled by Alphonse Areola for Cavani to prod in.

Areola was rather more impressive in turning away another Fernandes effort moments later but was not worked again before half-time and Lookman might have restored Fulham's lead at the start of the second period, only to this time shoot straight at De Gea.

It was a squandered opportunity that proved costly as Pogba produced his moment of magic, cutting inside from the right and arrowing a left-footed drive across Areola into the far corner.

Areola again followed the goal with a super stop, denying Cavani from close range, but De Gea also had to be alert to block from Ruben Loftus-Cheek and protect the points for United.

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.

Barcelona will sign Eric Garcia for free after the end of the season, presidential candidate Toni Freixa says.

The centre-back has been tipped to return to Camp Nou, where he was a youth player until 2017, since telling City last year he would not be signing a new contract.

It has been suggested Barca could look to bring in Garcia this month to bolster their defence, but Freixa suggested January incomings are highly unlikely due to their financial problems.

Instead, the 20-year-old Spain international is expected to join after his contract expires this year.

Speaking after a meeting with the interim Barca board and other presidential candidates, Freixa was quoted by Sport as saying: "We've valued the signing of Eric Garcia, but he will arrive in the summer when the season ends and he's available for free."

Freixa, who is running for president against favourite Joan Laporta and Victor Font, says head coach Ronald Koeman has not made any demands for the present transfer window.

Indeed, spending is highly unlikely given the major impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the club's finances.

Barca posted pre-tax losses of €100million last season, with debt more than doubling to €488m, as a 24-per-cent reduction in matchday revenues and a drop in merchandise sales took a huge toll.

The senior players agreed to a wage cut to help reduce costs and prevent club staff being made redundant, which helped to save €74m, but investment in the squad this year remains difficult.

"Koeman has not demanded anything," said Freixa. "He's only stated what is needed. We talked about what to do, and in the current situation, we cannot spend.

"The situation of the club is what it is. What we all know is that it's a critical situation as a result of the stadium being closed and we can't generate income as we normally did.

"But it's not an alarming situation that requires us to take an extraordinary decision."

Freixa added that the elections are due to be held on March 7, having been postponed this month to avoid the risk of members travelling to polling stations amid rising coronavirus cases across Spain.

"They've explained to us that the implementation of postal voting won't allow for the voting date to be earlier than March 7. Therefore, it's set for that date," he said.

Dani Ceballos knows only too well why Martin Odegaard has become frustrated at Real Madrid, insisting ambitious young players "need to play regularly" to further their development.

Odegaard impressed last season during a loan spell at LaLiga rivals Real Sociedad, yet he has struggled for minutes this term having returned to Madrid.

The Norway international has started just five games in all competitions and clocked up a mere 233 league minutes, leading to reports in Spain that he wants to leave in the January transfer window.

Ceballos himself is spending a second season on loan at Arsenal, a decision taken to make sure he had a greater opportunity for first-team action.

"I don't know exactly what happens with Martin, but it is obvious that any player who wants to succeed at Madrid is going to grab the opportunity he has," Ceballos said in an interview with Efe.

"I don't know what Martin thinks, but I know I think that when you're young and you have goals and objectives, what you need is to play regularly.

"If you don't, it's like something is missing. I guess that's what's happening to Martin."

Odegaard has failed to score or assist in his nine appearances for Madrid this season, having contributed seven goals and nine assists in 2019-20 while away on loan.

The 22-year-old has been linked with a return to Sociedad, potentially in a loan deal that includes an option to buy.

Ceballos, meanwhile, has not given up hope of forcing his way in at Madrid, though will need assurances over his future role if he is to remain in the Spanish capital next season.

"They don't have to tell me anything," the midfielder - who has won 11 caps for Spain - said of his own future. 

"It would be to have a talk with the coach and the coaching staff that is in at that moment and know that I will have equal opportunities with him.

"From there, you have to earn it on the field."

Ceballos has played in 24 games for Arsenal this term under Mikel Arteta, his most recent start coming in the 0-0 home draw with Crystal Palace on January 14.

Former Manchester United captain Bryan Robson would like to see Jack Grealish make a move to Old Trafford.

Aston Villa star Grealish has been linked with the Red Devils in the past 18 months but there has yet to be a concerted effort to sign him.

However, with the future of Paul Pogba unclear beyond this season, talk has again emerged that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer could look to Grealish as a possible replacement for the France star.

The England international has created a competition-high 55 goalscoring chances in the Premier League in 2020-21 from only 15 appearances.

The 25-year-old has become integral to Villa's improved performances this term, making 11 per cent of all of their passes and drawing 73 fouls, the most of any player in the division.

Former skipper Robson, twice a league champion with United, thinks Ole Gunnar Solskjaer would be making a smart move if he added Grealish to his squad.

"It was a good decision giving [Jack Grealish] the [Aston Villa] captaincy," he told Stats Perform. "I think it's made him a bit more mature.

"He's a powerful player. He's quite a strong boy and he's quick and the way he can sort of go either way past people, he's always going to be a danger and that's why he gets so many free-kicks. Him and Villa have been terrific this season.

"He's been linked with us but those decisions, thank goodness, are with Ole and the board of directors. I wouldn't mind seeing Jack Grealish in a Manchester United shirt. I don't know whether the staff at Old Trafford fancy him, much as you'd like to see him play for your club."

United face Fulham on Wednesday looking for a win that would take them back to the top of the Premier League.

Grealish and Villa are in action away to in-form Manchester City.

Jurgen Klopp is adamant Liverpool's recent woes in attack are simply down to poor decision-making in the final third rather than teams getting wise to their style of play.

The Reds head into Thursday's Premier League clash with Burnley having failed to score in any of their previous three top-flight games.

They beat Crystal Palace 7-0 just over a month ago but have since won just three points in the league, scoring once and seeing Manchester United rise to the summit. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's men can return to the top with a win over Fulham on Wednesday.

Much of the focus on Liverpool's attacking issues has somewhat unsurprisingly been centred on Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane, all of whom were disappointing in the 0-0 draw with United.

But Klopp seemed irritated when it was suggested a factor could be that other teams have learnt how to play against them.

"You can make of it what you want, it's football, it's not a new game, we didn't invent it new and then surprise the teams last year and they were like, 'oh my god, so that's how they attack'," Klopp said in his news conference.

"No team is to defend for a whole game, well, maybe a whole game but not then the next one. Other teams know what we're doing, last year they knew what we were doing, but we were still difficult to defend.

"Most of the good chances - we didn't miss them because they defended them, we missed because we didn't use them, so that is a massive difference. There are chances where we just have to finish them off better. That's the reason.

"Teams defend against us with all they have, that's not new. So, at the moment we have an 'offensive crisis', next headline will be everyone knows how to play against us.


"You smile as you ask the question but you know exactly what this kind of headline creates and what people are thinking, but it's normal. It's the situation we are in.

"I think I heard somewhere I have to rebuild this team? The world is a crazy place, not only because of the pandemic. It's because no one has time anymore, in football we know that.

"I've been in football long enough to know you never get time, you only get time if you make steps forward.

"After last season we haven't made steps forward, we know that, but we only make steps forward by playing not talking."

Of his first-choice attacking trio, Firmino seems to be the one receiving most of the criticism – after all, the Brazilian has only scored five times in the Premier League this season.

His goals (0.26) and assists (0.15) per 90 minutes this term across all competitions are the worst he has posted at Liverpool under Klopp, while his chance creation frequency is also at a low of 1.2 every 90 minutes.

It was put to Klopp that Liverpool have been less effective with regards to pressing this term, though Klopp dismissed the importance of that.

When asked how Firmino can get back on track, Klopp said: "By training, let's start with that, that's how it is.

"We didn't score a lot of goals in these games, it doesn't mean Roberto's performance dropped or whatever the counter press stats say – in this game it was not the case because a player wasn't there or we didn't do it well enough, we had a lot of great counter-pressing in this game, in other games before we press they may play a long ball, that's how it is.

"It's not always about your game, it's about the other team's approach as well, but we know we're not exactly where we want to be, there are some reasons but that’s not important, it's that we have to fight and we do."

Sokratis Papastathopoulos has left Arsenal after agreeing to terminate his contract with the club.

The defender has not made a Premier League appearance since March 7 last year and has not featured in a matchday squad in any competition in 2020-21.

The 32-year-old is now free to speak to other clubs, with Sevilla, Real Betis and Genoa among those said to be interested.

In a statement posted on Twitter, Sokratis said: "One of the most enjoyable times in my career ended today.

"It has been an honour to wear the Arsenal shirt and I want to thank all the coaches, team-mates, staff and fans around the world for the love and respect they have given me.

"I gave everything for Arsenal and Arsenal also gave me a lot. I wish you all the best health and success always. Thank you."

Arsenal technical director Edu said: "On behalf of Mikel [Arteta], our coaches, players and everyone at the club, I would like to thank Papa for his contribution to the club.

"He has been an important part of our group and has been a model professional throughout. The negotiations to end his contract have been collaborative and we wish Papa and his family well for the future."

Sokratis, whose deal had been due to expire at the end of the season, joined Arsenal from Borussia Dortmund in July 2018.

He made 69 appearances in all competitions for the Gunners, reaching the Europa League final in 2019 and winning the FA Cup last year.

In his time at the club, Sokratis won 57 tackles, 158 aerial duels and 314 duels, as well as making 248 clearances. Only Shkodran Mustafi ranks higher among Gunners defenders in that time.

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.

Edinson Cavani has urged Manchester United to not let arrogance creep into their game as they look to mount their first title challenge since Alex Ferguson's departure.

United retained their place at the top of the Premier League table with Sunday's 0-0 draw at Liverpool, with this the furthest into the season that they have been at the summit since winning the title in 2012-13.

Leicester City's win over Chelsea on Tuesday momentarily put the Foxes in first place, but United know they will go straight back above them with a victory at struggling Fulham on Wednesday.

United are on a remarkable run away from home in the Premier League – avoiding defeat on Wednesday will see them equal a club-record 17 games unbeaten on the road in the top flight, equalling the feat achieved by Ferguson's treble-winning side in 1998-99.

But while the odds will be stacked against Fulham, who are 18th in the table, Cavani had a few words of caution for United ahead of the trip to Craven Cottage.

"I believe that one of the most important things that we need to be aware of whenever we go into any game is that we are Manchester United, and, irrespective of whether we are top of the league or in any other position, every other team that plays against Manchester United tries to do their absolute best to try to beat them," he told United Review.

"It was also a similar situation for me when I was at PSG. Teams try to do the impossible to get a victory against one of the most legendary and best teams in the world. So ensuring we are focused and concentrated on this should give us the energy to want to fight for this badge and be top of the league, fighting to stay right where we are.

"For all that, we need to be ready and mentally prepared to compete. Like I always say, the important thing isn't just winning a couple of games, it's having that consistency of always competing; competing in every game and for every ball, and concentrating to the absolute maximum for every situation that comes up in the game. And that's what, in the end, allows you to achieve your ultimate goal.

"Fulham will know very well that they have Manchester United coming up next, and they'll be going all out to try to beat us, like they have done in the past and just like what we've seen with other teams like Burnley, who always give their utmost.

"So we need to be aware that it's going to be a tough game and that we have to be 100 per cent focused in order to take care of all the details so we can try to win the game in order to [return to the top of the table]." 

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.

Page 1 of 380
© 2020 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.