Pep Guardiola sprung a team news surprise for Manchester City's Champions League final against Chelsea, leaving both club captain Fernandinho and fellow holding midfielder Rodri on the bench.

Saturday's clash at Porto's Estadio do Dragao is City's 61st game of the campaign. At least one of Rodri or Fernandinho has started each of the previous 60.

Despite taking a knock to the thigh in training on Friday, Ilkay Gundogan – City's top scorer this term with 17 in all competitions - looks like he will start at the base of the midfield.

England winger Raheem Sterling is recalled to the forward line, aiming to build on a return of one club goal since February, with Riyad Mahrez, Phil Foden, Kevin De Bruyne and Bernardo Silva providing ample attacking support.

It is not the first time Guardiola's selection for a key game has led to raised eyebrows. The decision to deploy a back three in last season's Champions League quarter-final against Lyon backfired horribly as the Ligue 1 side ran out 3-1 winners.

Ilkay Gundogan withdrew before the end of Manchester City's training session on the eve of their Champions League final clash with Chelsea in Porto.

Gundogan, who is the Premier League champions' top scorer in all competitions this term with 17 goals this term, appeared to be suffering from discomfort in his right thigh after a collision with captain Fernandinho.

City's practice match at Estadio do Dragao continued in the Germany international's absence, with the players and manager Pep Guardiola retaining an overall relaxed demeanour – suggesting the nature of Gundogan's knock, being impact rather than muscular, meant it was not a major cause for concern.

Gundogan is the only member of the City squad to have featured in a Champions League final when he scored from the penalty spot in Borussia Dortmund's 2-1 defeat to Bayern Munich at Wembley in 2013.

The 30-year-old has been instrumental in City regaining the Premier League and retaining the EFL Cup this season, although he was an unused substitute for last weekend's 5-0 victory over Everton after being substituted following a blow to the knee in a 3-2 defeat at Brighton and Hove Albion.

"I'm alright, I was a little bit cautious in that Brighton game," he said when asked about his fitness earlier this week.

"Because of the knock on my knee I started to feel all the muscles around it a little bit and I didn't want to pull anything.

"I didn't miss any training sessions, so I'm feeling good."

All other members of Guardiola's first team squad trained, with no fitness concerns mentioned by the manager at his pre-match news conference.

Phil Foden is a gamechanger for Manchester City who could make the difference in Saturday's Champions League final, says team-mate Ilkay Gundogan.

Foden's first season as a regular first-team starter at City has yielded rich rewards, with a strike in Sunday's closing 5-0 win over Everton his 16th in all competitions.

That places him second in the club's scoring charts this term, just behind midfielder Gundogan on 17.

Foden has also chipped in with 10 assists – only Kevin De Bruyne (18) has more – and he looks set to have a key role to play in England's Euro 2020 campaign after making his international breakthrough.

First up are Chelsea in City's maiden appearance in the Champions League showpiece, an occasion for which Gundogan feels Foden need not make any special preparations.

"Phil has become one of our main players throughout the season," said the ex-Borussia Dortmund midfielder, who was a losing finalist despite scoring a penalty against Bayern Munich at Wembley in 2013.

"He's doing incredibly well, he improved in so many details of his game, mainly in taking the right decisions at crucial times.

"For such a young age it is really impressive. I wouldn't recommend him to change anything from what he's done over the past few weeks. He's doing great.

"He is one of the gamechangers for us and he can be one on Saturday. But there is no need to put anyone under pressure because everyone has done the right thing over the past few months.

"It's just about maintaining that level and form and going with that attitude into the game."

Another player at the opposite end of his career to Foden is City's captain Fernandinho.

The 36-year-old could become the first Brazilian to skipper a Champions League-winning side and, despite having found himself below Rodri in the pecking order for much of the season, a rousing display in the second leg of the semi-final against Paris Saint-Germain has given boss Pep Guardiola something to think about.

"I really can't express how important Fernandinho is to us as a group," Gundogan said, before doing precisely that.

"He is immense. He didn't get as much game time as others in the squad this season, but he exactly knows his role and his responsibilities and what he has to do and say in the right times.

"This is what a leader is. A leader is maybe not always the one scoring the goals or playing every minute, who has the best passing rate or whatever.

"A leader is someone who is not scared to say the truth in the bad moments, who has that sense of empathy inside themselves.

"Even though his role from a sporting perspective was not the easiest one, the way he handled it was just incredible. He is a big part of our success and when he played, he played amazing.

"If you wish to have the right characters in a squad, you wish to have a lot of players like Fernandinho."

Gundogan is one of the virtual certainties to be on the City teamsheet and assuaged any injury doubts after he was substituted having opened the scoring in last week's 3-2 loss at Brighton and Hove Albion before watching the Everton match from the bench.

"I'm alright, I was a little bit cautious in that Brighton game," he explained. "Because of the knock on my knee I started to feel all the muscles around it a little bit and I didn't want to pull anything.

"I didn't miss any training sessions, so I'm feeling good."

Harry Kane's reported desire to leave Tottenham has created a race for his signature.

A lack of silverware is believed to be behind Kane's alleged urge to move on, with Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea the leading suitors.

In the post-COVID world where club finances have been hit hard, some clubs are getting creative.

 

TOP STORY - CHELSEA'S PLAYER-PLUS-CASH SWAP DEAL

Chelsea are launching a player-plus-cash swap deal to land Kane from Tottenham involving goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga and forward Tammy Abraham, claims ESPN.

Spurs keeper Hugo Lloris is expected to leave the club, hence the lure of Kepa who has been back-up to Edouard Mendy, while Abraham, who is not a regular starter for the Blues, could help to fill the void left by Kane.

Kane is contracted with Tottenham for another three seasons and Spurs are believed to want a transfer fee of £150 million, so the addition of players would drop that figure down to an affordable level.

 

ROUND-UP

- The Guardian reports that Sergio Aguero has agreed to a two-year deal with Barcelona, with his departure from Manchester City this off-season already confirmed.

- Arsenal's Sead Kolasinac will leave the Gunners, with Schalke 04 and Lazio circling for the Bosnian's signature, reports Football London.

- Fernandinho was set to exit Manchester City, but The Times claims he will renew with the club on a one-year deal.

- The manager merry-go-round is in full swing, with The Mirror claiming that Wolves are looking at ex-Roma boss Paulo Fonseca, while The Sun reports that Tottenham will try to convince Brendan Rodgers to join the club if Leicester City fail to qualify for next season's Champions League.

Fernandinho is determined to close out Manchester City's triumphant season with Champions League glory.

City's third Premier League title in the past four seasons was confirmed on Tuesday when a much-changed Manchester United went down to a 2-1 defeat against top-four-chasing Leicester City at Old Trafford.

Pep Guardiola's side also collected the EFL Cup with a 1-0 victory against Tottenham at Wembley last month and their season will conclude with a Champions League final against Chelsea on May 29.

City will welcome 10,000 fans to their last Premier League game of the season versus Everton before that showpiece, something long-serving midfielder Fernandinho suggested will sharpen minds a little.

"We have missed the fans so much," he said. "We wanted to do this for them.

"We will enjoy this moment and we hope the fans do too.

"Rest assured we will continue to do everything we can to bring the Champions League home this season."

Fernandinho has now won four Premier League titles since joining City in 2013, but this is his first as captain.

The 36-year-old Brazil international succeeded David Silva, who left to join Real Sociedad when his contract expired last year, as skipper.

"To captain this team is an honour and a privilege because the players have given their all throughout season, whether in training or in matches," said Fernandinho, whose own deal at the Etihad Stadium expires next month.

“The teamwork has been amazing. Football is everything to us and we strive every single day to be as good as we can be in the hope we can bring success to Manchester City.”

Pep Guardiola's management of Manchester City has never felt quite as fraught as it did midway through his first season in charge, as the English winter of 2016-17 bit hard for a team in transition.

City collapsed to a 3-1 defeat to Chelsea in a top-of-the-table clash, a setback that preceded a humbling 4-2 loss at Leicester City.

After that game, Guardiola infamously remarked, "I am not a coach for the tackles", and a 4-0 thumping at Everton the following month further fuelled suspicions in some quarters that 'The Barclays' was bringing the most celebrated coach of his generation to heel in its inimitable fashion.

As City bask in a third Premier League title in the past four years, it is striking how Guardiola's commitment to his principles has not wavered at all. If anything, times of high stress have only served to deepen his convictions.

Speaking before that 2016 ordeal, when Jamie Vardy ran riot with a hat-trick, Guardiola discussed the make-up of his ideal team, with tongue planted only partially in cheek.

"I love midfield players," he said. "Always I said, many times, if I could play with 11 midfield players, I would."

Fast forward four-and-a-half seasons, and City are into their maiden Champions League final having driven Paris Saint-Germain to furious distraction over the course of a 4-1 aggregate victory.

They got there without a recognised striker – playmakers Kevin De Bruyne, Bernardo Silva, Phil Foden and Ilkay Gundogan taking various turns at the point of the attack and winger Riyad Mahrez scoring three of the four goals. Oleksandr Zinchenko, a midfielder by trade, replaced Joao Cancelo at left-back midway through the second half in Paris and was a stand-out performer in Manchester.

Consider John Stones' resurgence as a ball-playing central defender and Ederson's own silky footwork between the posts and Guardiola really isn't too far away from his ideal.

"I have to admit it, I like the players that have the ability to keep the ball, don't lose the ball," he said before last Saturday's 2-0 win at Crystal Palace that brought City to the brink of glory.

"It's one of the principal things I am looking for. If they keep the ball, it is the best way to defend. The players have to keep the ball in difficult circumstances.

"In all my career I played with a lot of midfield players. I have the feeling you can play better with these kind of players."

Let's ignore the fact Guardiola picked a bizarre line-up featuring Rodri as his only specialist midfielder in Saturday's 2-1 defeat to Chelsea and dig into this theme a little more...

Pausa for thought

At City, "Don't lose the ball" is a non-negotiable update on Guardiola's Barcelona template of "Take the ball, pass the ball". As they have in the three previous completed campaigns, they boast a passing accuracy of 89 per cent.

There is an increased calmness and control to their play, as shown in their data over the course of the season.

City are taking fewer shots than at any other period in the Guardiola era. They average 15.9 attempts per game in the Premier League, down from 19.6 last season and lower even than the 16.6 from their manager's fitful first season.

Their figure of 2.1 goals per game is in line with their 2016-17 average and some way below what followed. The 100-point campaign of 2017-18 yielded 2.8 goals per game.

Sergio Aguero's thumping strike against Palace showed the killer finishing instinct Guardiola's battery of midfielders lack, which partially explains this drop-off.

But it has been absorbed because the overly frantic feel to City's play when Liverpool won the league last year is all but gone. An average possession figure of 64.2 per cent in the Premier League is actually their lowest under Guardiola, but their average open play sequence lasts 15.1 seconds and this has never lasted longer.

Another metric that hints towards control and the idea of City taking their time is their direct speed – put simply, how quickly the team progresses the ball upfield. This season, their attacks have advanced at 1.1 metres per second, which is their slowest or least direct under Guardiola.

If this means they do not quicken the pulse as much around the opposition penalty area, there are obvious benefits when it comes to protecting their own.

According to Opta, City have conceded 25 'big chances' in the Premier League in 2020-21, an average of 0.71 per game. This more than halves their 1.47 'big chances' faced from last season.

Along with some more refined work in possession, the talismanic influence of record signing Ruben Dias at centre-back should not be understated.

Of the 245 shots City have faced this season, 67 were blocked. That amounts to 27.3 per cent and the highest ratio of blocks under Guardiola. Anyone who watched Dias practically turn taking PSG shots in the face into an artform last week will not be overly surprised.

Conceding from 10.6 per cent of shots faced is City's second-best return of the past five years, following 9.7 per cent in 2018-19, while 35 per cent of shots faced being on target is another welcome low under their current manager.

In his first 30 league outings, Dias contributed to 14 clean sheets and saw just 18 goals conceded. They would be impressive numbers in any circumstances, but especially so when you then remember he walked into something resembling a train wreck.

"This isn't a team I can recognise"

"We started to think we were playing bad when we were not playing bad," a shellshocked Guardiola said. Leicester again. Vardy again. 5-2 this time, having led their opening home game of the season last September.

Whatever they thought as anxiety crept in when they were unable to build upon Mahrez opening the scoring against his former club, City ended up playing very badly indeed. Three of Leicester's goals were penalties. It was all impossibly error-strewn.

"The start of this season was so messy, for everyone," captain Fernandinho told The Players' Tribute.

"The way we had to come back [for Project Restart] after three months of inactivity, then we had practically no pre-season. Nothing like that had ever happened in our careers."

A month prior to their Leicester humiliation, City collapsed to a wretched 3-1 defeat to Lyon in the quarter-finals of the Champions League. That disappointment cloaked a listless start to 2020-21, as the surreal darkness of pandemic football became a numbing reality.

Guardiola was trying to pick up the pieces professionally having lost his mother to coronavirus five months earlier. The strain was understandable and visible.

Dias completed his move from Benfica two days after the Leicester defeat and was thrust into a Bielsaball baptism in a chaotic 1-1 draw against Leeds United. Far from a team of midfielders, it was hard to spot any functioning midfield at all in Guardiola's side at Elland Road.

The Portugal centre-back's leadership qualities were soon apparent and the seeds of an imperious partnership with John Stones were sown. That defensive alliance only truly flowered after a 2-0 defeat at Tottenham, which saw Aymeric Laporte lose his first-choice status.

That loss meant City had taken 12 of the first 24 points on offer, leaving them marooned in mid-table after their worst start to a Premier League season since 2008-09. Six consecutive clean sheets followed in all competitions, although a torpid 0-0 draw at Manchester United did not suggest a team in good health.

In their next game, City were eventually breached – ironically by a Dias own goal – and struggling West Brom left the Etihad Stadium with a 1-1 draw.

"After that game, I had a feeling this isn't a team I can recognise. I didn't like what I saw," Guardiola said, who convened talks with his assistants Juanma Lillo and Rodolfo Borrell, head of player support Manel Estiarte and City's director of football Txiki Begiristain.

"I said we have to come back to our first principle. We started to rebuild and reconstruct the team from that point. We had success in the past and [we had to] come back on our positional play, move the ball quicker, do more passes, stay more in position, run less with the ball."

New Year's resolution

A battling 1-0 win at Southampton got things back on track and ultimately launched a 21-match winning run across all competitions, while Guardiola hailed a 2-0 Boxing Day win over Newcastle United as the best performance of the campaign.

Still, all was not well. The scheduled December 28 trip to Everton was postponed due to a COVID-19 outbreak within City's squad and, on New Year's Eve, Guardiola did not like what he saw on the training ground.

"It was not a good session," Fernandinho recalled. "The attitude, the body language, the effort from some players, it was just obvious. Misplaced passes, players not tracking back, not running, not looking interested.

"After that session, Pep came and spoke to me as captain, as the leader of the team. He was blunt. He told me that not everyone was at 100 per cent. And, in this team, when you come to train, you do it at 100 per cent, or you stay home.

"He was right. And he made it clear that the responsibility for keeping those standards rested with me."

At 7am on New Years' Day, Fernandinho sent out messages to convene a team meeting. Home truths were spoken and Chelsea at Stamford Bridge were up next, with 14 senior outfield players fit and available.

"Before the match, I thought to myself, 'If these guys don't run here, that’s it, I'm done!'," Fernandinho said. He need not have worried.

City tore Chelsea to pieces before half-time, running out 3-1 winners and hastening Frank Lampard's move towards the exit door. Gundogan, Foden and De Bruyne got the goals and the team of midfielders were off and running.

A month later, that same configuration demolished Liverpool 4-1 at Anfield and what felt like a long shot back at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium had quickly become a formality. They are the first team to have been as low as eighth on Christmas Day and win the Premier League title.

"A real guy, a real player"

Fernandinho served as back-up to Rodri during that rampaging run, but his influence behind the scenes should not be underplayed. For all his majestic qualities on the field, David Silva lacked the capacity to rally his colleagues in the same manner last season, having inherited the armband from Vincent Kompany for his final year at the Etihad Stadium.

Dias has filled Kompany's considerable void as a defensive leader, with Fernandinho doing likewise as a squad figurehead.

There have still been memorable performances, with the Brazilian veteran somewhere close to his snapping and crackling best in a 1-0 February win at Arsenal. He started the EFL Cup final as City made it four successes in a row last month and then, on his 36th birthday, he gritted his teeth defiantly in the face of PSG's challenge, perhaps irritating Angel Di Maria in the process.

Like Aguero, Fernandinho is out of contract in June and could be set to follow Kompany, Silva, Yaya Toure and Pablo Zabaleta out of the exit door, closing the book on their transformative era.

Since joining from Shakhtar Donetsk in 2013, he has won more games (170) and completed more passes (13,821) than any other Premier League player. And yes, fans of the dark arts, no player has committed as many fouls (344) or received more yellow cards (51).

"I feel very good. The first time lifting the trophy at City, it's an amazing sensation," he told Sky Sports after his record-breaking sixth EFL Cup success and first as captain.

The sensations will be even more enjoyable when he gets his hands on the Premier League, with another more elusive prize maybe still to come.

"He's so important. He's a real guy, a real player who can play in several positions," Guardiola said, back at that pre-Leicester press conference in 2016 when he was asked how City might cope without a suspended Fernandinho. Not too well, as it turned out.

When presented with any plaudits for the successful refinement of his team's style this season, Guardiola has batted them away to insist the triumph "belongs to the players". That is certainly true in the case of Fernandinho, a midfield general and the perfect captain for this team of midfielders.

Pep Guardiola lauded Riyad Mahrez's appetite for the big occasion after the Manchester City winger's brace secured a 2-0 win over Paris Saint-Germain and a place in the Champions League final.

Mahrez's free-kick sealed a 2-1 win at Parc des Princes in last week's first leg and he netted a goal in each half on Tuesday to close out a 4-1 aggregate triumph.

The former Leicester City favourite has found the going tough at times since joining City in 2018 but he is now a go-to pick for Guardiola, his four goals and two assists in this season's competition putting the club one game away from elusive Champions League glory.

"Riyad is an extraordinary player – big talent, huge quality, especially in the big games he is always ready," City manager Guardiola told a post-match news conference.

"We know his quality quite well. He is a fantastic player.

"The players in these stages are judged how they behave in the biggest scenarios, the big tests.

"He loves it and enjoys it. He made a good goal, the first one with right foot and the finish for the second. Three goals over the tie, he deserves big compliments.

Fernandinho was a surprise selection on his 36th birthday, but Guardiola felt the club captain excelled.

"Especially in the second half he was incredible," said Guardiola. "We adjusted a little bit [at half-time] to support John [Stones] and Ruben [Dias].

"He was so good, really, really good. It was his birthday, a big present. He has been an extraordinary captain this season, leading us in bad moments and he played really well."

Guardiola conceded it was strange to play such a key game behind closed doors, even if that has now been a reality of the coronavirus pandemic for almost a year.

Before the match, a group of City fans – some with flares – gathered to welcome the team bus to the ground.

"I have to say it was socially distanced but we loved it," Guardiola said. "It's nice to be in a final but we missed them."

"Of course, it was so weird playing the semi-final of the Champions League in empty stadium.

"The club belongs to the people, that's for sure. We are here for a period but the fans always stay. I am pretty sure they are so proud."

Aymeric Laporte felt Sunday's EFL Cup triumph gave Manchester City a timely confidence boost as they enter a decisive period of their season.

Centre-back Laporte was the unlikely matchwinner against Tottenham at Wembley on Sunday, heading home the only goal from Kevin De Bruyne's 82nd-minute free-kick.

City were back at England's national stadium eight days on from a sapping 1-0 reverse against Chelsea in the FA Cup semi-finals.

Now they will turn their attentions towards a Champions League last-four clash against Paris Saint-Germain, with Manchester United's 0-0 draw at Leeds United earlier on Sunday also meaning Pep Guardiola's men are just two wins away from claiming Premier League glory.

"We are so happy to win this title again," Laporte told Sky Sports after City lifted the trophy for a record-equalling fourth season in a row.

"It's very special because we lost in the FA Cup so it is something good for us to get confidence and keep playing like we have done the past few months.

"We have done so, so good and we have to keep this rhythm this way to win more titles."

Laporte's moment to savour came against an opponent who he has often struggled to find his best form against.

A pair of mistakes leading to Son Heung-min strikes led to City going out of the 2018-19 Champions League on away goals, while a shaky display at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium earlier this term preceded John Stones replacing him as Guardiola's first-choice partner for Ruben Dias.

The trend threatened to continue when Laporte was booked for a cynical first-half foul on Lucas Moura, having been incredibly fortunate to escape punishment for an earlier challenge on the same player.

"It's hard. I was thinking a lot about that. We know that a little mistake can cost you a lot," Laporte said.

"I've been careful in the second half and tried not to commit fouls."

Laporte was not penalised for another foul after the Lucas booking and made no tackles or interceptions during the game – statistics that speak of both City's dominance and his necessarily more reserved approach in the second half.

Long-serving City midfielder Fernandinho claimed a sixth winners' medal in the EFL Cup, having also won two under Manuel Pellegrini.

It was the first time the veteran Brazilian lifted the trophy as captain, however, and it was unquestionably a proud moment.

"My first time lifting a trophy at City as captain is an amazing sensation," he told Sky Sports.

"I think we deserved to win that game because we went from the first minute trying to score goals and created chances.

"At the end the game has been decided by a set piece.

"I am happy for myself, my team-mates, the staff, all the group. We have to enjoy this."

Fernandinho added: "I'm really proud. To win six trophies in this competition is an amazing feeling. I'm grateful for this club and the fans – I was so happy to see them back in the stadium. Congratulations to everyone."

Manchester City's players were universally against the European Super League project, according to captain Fernandinho. 

The 12-team breakaway competition was only revealed on Sunday, yet the universal backlash quickly led to the 'big six' from the Premier League all withdrawing from the proposal.

City were the first to reveal their decision to pull out, with Arsenal, Liverpool, Tottenham and Manchester United then releasing simultaneous statements ending their association.

Chelsea had been the first English club reported to be making a Super League U-turn and the Blues confirmed as much after the 0-0 home draw with Brighton and Hove Albion on Tuesday.

Speaking after City's 2-1 Premier League win over Aston Villa on Wednesday – a result that moved them 11 points clear of Manchester United at the top of the table, having played a game more – Fernandinho expressed his relief that the tournament had collapsed. 

"It's been crazy," he told Sky Sports. "After the Chelsea defeat in the FA Cup semi-final the guys were a little bit down and then on Monday this Super League came out.

"We were a little bit surprised. We didn't expect that but in the end I think the good sense was the right thing to do. Everyone throughout football didn't support this Super League, including our players.

"We are so happy now because everything has turned around. For sure, it was a big surprise for everyone.

"It's a tough situation, [we had] to find out from the people at the top of the club to see the reason they are there together with the other clubs.

"In the end, of course we wanted to come out to say we were against that. We had a chat with the players and waited for the club for the statement.

"We are happy because in the end football wins."

Victory at Villa Park for Pep Guardiola's men meant City became the first team to win 10 away games in a row in the competition on more than one occasion. 

Lionel Messi has been tipped to leave Barcelona for either Manchester City or Paris Saint-Germain.

Barca have also been linked with Borussia Dortmund's Erling Haaland.

But Haaland could reportedly unlock Messi's future.

 

TOP STORY – HAALAND TO CITY MEANS BARCA STAY FOR MESSI?

Borussia Dortmund star Erling Haaland could hold the key to Lionel Messi's future at Barcelona, according to the front page of Thursday's Diario AS.

Haaland is a player in demand, linked with Barca, Manchester City, Real Madrid, Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool, Juventus and Paris Saint-Germain.

City have been tipped to sign Messi, but should they step up their pursuit of Haaland, the Premier League leaders could reportedly drop their interest in the Barca captain.

 

ROUND-UP

- Mundo Deportivo says new Barca president Joan Laporta is preparing a contract renewal for Messi, who is set to become a free agent at season's end.

- Bayern Munich are eyeing a move for Tottenham star Son Heung-min, claims Football Insider. Son has reportedly been offered a bumper new contract by Spurs, but the former Bayer Leverkusen forward is wanted in Munich.

- Sporting CP's Joao Palhinha, Borussia Monchengladbach star Denis Zakaria and Sander Berge of Sheffield United are on the list of midfielders to replace City veteran Fernandinho, reports A Bola.

- Gazzetta dello Sport says Juventus and Barca are interested in Milan captain Alessio Romagnoli. The Italy defender is out of contract in 2022 and is reportedly seeking a €6million-a-year contract.

Napoli are eyeing Lazio head coach Simone Inzaghi and sporting director Igli Tare, claims Radio Kiss Kiss Napoli. Gennaro Gattuso has been tipped to leave Napoli at the end of the season, with ex-Juve boss Massimiliano Allegri, Luciano Spalletti and Hellas Verona's Ivan Juric among the possible replacements. But Lazio duo Inzaghi and Tare are being monitored to replace Gattuso and Cristiano Giuntoli in Naples.

United are interested in Lille defender Sven Botman, according to Fabrizio Romano. Sevilla star Jules Kounde has been on United's radar but the club's asking price of €80m (£68m) is too steep.

- Romano also says there is no agreement with United and Paul Pogba over a new contract. Pogba has been linked with former club Juve, Madrid and PSG.

Pep Guardiola insists it makes "no sense" for players who will have to quarantine upon their return to the UK to go on international duty later this month – stating Manchester City will not release such players.

In light of on-going coronavirus travel restrictions, FIFA has made the unprecedented move of giving clubs the right to prevent players from joining up with their national teams if the fixtures in question mean a quarantine period of five days or more upon their return.

In the UK, anyone travelling to 'red list' countries must isolate for 10 days when they come back, with no exemptions granted for elite sportspeople.

The list features all of South America and parts of Africa. Portugal, the only European country on the list, have sought to mitigate the impact by moving their World Cup qualifier against Azerbaijan on March 24 to Turin.

Although that seemingly frees up City trio Bernardo Silva, Joao Cancelo and Ruben Dias, Guardiola will be able to put his foot down when it comes to Argentina striker Sergio Aguero, Algeria winger Riyad Mahrez and Brazil contingent Ederson, Fernandinho and Gabriel Jesus.

"We didn't speak. We will wait until after this game against United and I am pretty sure that next week we'll talk about that," Guardiola told a news conference ahead of Sunday's Manchester derby.

"But I think it makes no sense if the players go to the national team and then have to isolate for 10 days when they come back. It makes no sense.

"We've worked incredibly hard for seven, eight or nine months and after the international break comes the real part of the season, and important players cannot play for 10 days? It makes no sense.

"They are not going to fly. That’s for sure. If they can fly, play with the national team and come straight back to training, they’ll fly.

"We invest a lot of time and money for the important part of the season and if six, seven, eight players cannot play with us, it makes no sense, honestly. No sense."

Guardiola's stance means the runaway Premier League leaders are aligned with the reigning champions after Jurgen Klopp also said Liverpool players from affected countries would not be released.

The City boss, who famously went against Barcelona's stance during his time as head coach and allowed Lionel Messi to win a gold medal at the 2008 Olympic Games, insists he is not acting to devalue international football – just merely reacting to the realities of these times.

"We want to let them go to the national team. I know how important it is for them. I'd never say don't go to represent your country and to prepare for the European Cup or American Cup," he added.

"But it's no sense to do it and not play for 10 days, no training session, be at home, when we are playing for the league.

"If we go through, we will still be in the Champions League and we don't play with these players.

"They are not going to fly. I don't know what is going to happen but they are not going to fly, for sure.

"We've followed the protocols for eight, nine months. No restaurants, closed. The people are here - home, home, here, in the bubble, don't do it [break protocols], protect them, test them every two days.

"And after, in an important part of the season in the league, we don't have the players because the government has decided it is in a red zone and they cannot play when we are playing every three or four days?

"They are not going to fly, sure. I'm pretty sure that UEFA or FIFA will understand this argument."

Bukayo Saka was one of the Arsenal players who made Manchester City suffer during their 1-0 win at Emirates Stadium, according to Pep Guardiola.

Raheem Sterling's second-minute header was enough for City to extend their record-breaking winning run in all competitions to 18 matches and restore a 10-point advantage at the Premier League summit.

Guardiola's side briefly threatened to run away with the contest, but Saka's threat from the left flank brought Arsenal back into the match.

The 19-year-old England international completed all three of his attempted dribbles, while three shots were more than any of his team-mates managed.

"All the team suffered when Arsenal had the ball," Guardiola told a post-match news conference

"With [Martin] Odegaard and especially with Saka they are a really tough opponent to play. They have incredible young, talented players and I see a bright, bright future for Arsenal.

"If they can get a few players in a few positions they will make an incredible step forward. They are a team who make all the opponents suffer a lot when they play against them."

There are perhaps no City players more adept when it comes to addressing the suffering their manager identified than veteran holding midfielder Fernandinho.

The 35-year-old club captain made his first Premier League start since the end of January and gained possession nine times – more than any other City player.

Fernandinho also stood above his team-mates in terms of clearances (four), tackles (three) and interceptions (two).

"What a game, what a game he played – without the ball, winning duels in the important moments," Guardiola said.

"Rodri has been exceptional but needs rest. What a game Fernandinho played. He is an incredible player, person and captain.

"Always, I will remember him. We have been together since day one and he has been so important."

That association could come to an end at the end of the season, when Fernandinho's contract expires, but Guardiola suggested he could be capable of similar feats next term.

"Why not? He's so incredible," he added. "He knows exactly what he has to do. What a game he played in a tough, tough game."

Manchester City star Sergio Aguero is reportedly wanted by Barcelona.

Aguero's future at City is uncertain with the 32-year-old coming out of contract at the end of the season.

And the forward is unsurprisingly wanted by Europe's biggest clubs.

 

TOP STORY – BARCELONA WANT AGUERO

Barcelona are eyeing Manchester City forward Sergio Aguero, according to The Sun.

Aguero has also been linked to Paris Saint-Germain as City's all-time leading goalscorer entered the final six months of his contract.

The Argentina international has scored two goals in nine games this season.

 

ROUND-UP

- Staying at Barcelona and Eric Garcia looks set to join the club from City. The cover of Mundo Deportivo says Garcia is poised to move to Barca in January in a deal worth €5million (£4.5m) plus variables.

- Also facing an uncertain future is Fernandinho. The Telegraph reports Fernandinho is undecided about his future, with the City man having offers from South America.

- Matteo Guendouzi is set to see out his loan spell at Hertha Berlin. Fabrizio Romano says the midfielder will not return to Arsenal in January, with the Bundesliga club wanting him to stay until season's end.

- Wolves seem unlikely to sign a forward in January. The Mirror claims they have aborted interested in Liverpool striker Divock Origi and Chelsea's Olivier Giroud.

- With Frank Lampard under pressure at the helm of Chelsea, help could be incoming. Sky Sports reports Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich is considering bringing back former manager Avram Grant to work with Lampard.

Fernandinho is close to making a decision on his Manchester City future with a number of clubs interested in signing the midfielder, according to agent Giovanni Branchini. 

The 35-year-old is into the final six months of his deal at the Etihad Stadium having signed a one-year extension with the Premier League club in January 2020. 

Pep Guardiola revealed earlier this week that the Brazil international, who is in his eighth season with City, may move on at the end of the campaign. 

A return to Brazilian side Athletico Paranaense, where he started his career before moving to Shakhtar Donetsk and then City, has been touted. 

Branchini has confirmed that approaches have been made for his client and he is now weighing up what to do next. 

"We've received several proposals, good projects from Brazilian and European clubs for Fernandinho," he told Globo Esporte.  

"He's a phenomenal player and person. I believe it won't be long before he knows what decision he'll make.

"Everyone knows that Fernandinho has a great affection for Athletico and the board. I, too, have an excellent relationship with president Mario Celso Petraglia. 

"Conversations have always happened, but I can't go ahead and say that we talk about values, for example. It hasn't happened yet. 

"I confess that it's difficult to think of Fernandinho returning to Brazil and not playing for Athletico. But we have to wait - it's a difficult decision, which he has to make with his family." 

Fernandinho has been a regular for City since joining from Shakhtar for a reported £30million in June 2013, featuring more than 300 times in all competitions. 

That includes 15 outings this season, eight of which have come in the Premier League, albeit just three starts. 

He has made 57 passes into the final third during his league outings at a rate of 15.18 per 90 minutes, placing him behind only Jordan Henderson (16.31) and Pablo Hernandez (16.57) among players to have played at least at least six times. 

Only six players have played more passes per 90 minutes than Fernandinho's average of 84.94 - a metric topped by Liverpool skipper Henderson (97.99).  

City have won one, drawn one and lost one of the three league games Fernandinho has started this term for a win rate of 33.3 per cent, which rises to 58.3 per cent in the 12 games he has not been included in the XI.

Sergio Aguero's mood is "better than ever" as he tentatively nears the end of an injury nightmare, according to Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola.

Guardiola confirmed City's all-time top scorer will start Sunday's FA Cup third-round tie against Birmingham City at the Etihad Stadium as he looks to put the after-effects of meniscus surgery behind him.

Aguero underwent an operation in June and has been forced to manage ongoing discomfort in the joint since a hamstring injury at West Ham curtailed his initial return in October.

Despite being ravaged by a coronavirus outbreak among their squad, City head into the weekend buoyed by their two finest performances of the season - a swashbuckling 3-1 win over Chelsea preceding a 2-0 win against rivals Manchester United in the semi-finals of the EFL Cup.

Four minutes from the bench at Stamford Bridge was the sum of Aguero's action across the those games, as he was an unused substitute at Old Trafford.

Nevertheless, his goalscoring prowess has been an obvious miss across the course of the campaign. In their most recent title-winning season, City averaged 2.6 goals per game in the Premier League with Aguero in the side.

That has fallen to 1.6 in all matches this time around, with a win percentage of 53.9 per cent, set against 84.8 with Aguero in harness two seasons ago. Shots per 90 minutes are also down from 18.1 to 15.6 when the two data sets are compared.

"Just look at the numbers, the quality he has in the box, Sergio is unique," Guardiola told a pre-match news conference.

"He has a tough, tough injury. The important thing is his mood is exceptional, I would say better than ever.

"It's important that the feeling, the last two weeks, his knee's reaction was really good after training. This is the best news we can have.

"He’s going to start, the minutes his performance level or knee will dictate. What's important is good quality minutes, as much as possible, we start from the beginning and after we'll see what happens.

"It will be great to have Sergio fit. He’s so optimistic. He says 'I will score goals' and that is the most important thing."

Aguero is out of contract at the end of the season, as is fellow fans' favourite Fernandinho.

The 35-year-old Brazil international has returned to his customary central midfield position this season, having deputised at centre-back for much of last, and completed the scoring with a sweetly struck volley against United in midweek.

Following the departure of David Silva over the close season, Fernandinho has stepped up as club captain and impressed Guardiola greatly with his leadership skills.

"With the players in this part of the season, everything is open," Guardiola said, when discussing the prospect of the veteran earning a fresh deal.

"I am more than impressed with the first captain role of Fernandinho, he is leading in an exceptional way. In the good moments and the bad, bad moments.

"If everyone can take an example of what he has done so far, the team will be stronger."

Pressed for examples of how the quietly spoken star commands the dressing room, Guardiola replied: "How he talks with his mates, how he talks with my assistant coach, before the game, at half-time.

"Not just talking to players about football matters, in life, how to behave in training, every single day. He's the first who proves that he's able to do it.

"That's why he goes to Old Trafford, plays holding midfielder there. It was not easy for Bruno Fernandes to control him.

"At the beginning of the season he stepped forward and showed how to be a captain."

City will have Ederson, Ferran Torres and Tommy Doyle available for selection once more, provided they returned negative COVID-19 tests on Friday.

The trio tested positive ahead of the postponed Premier League match at Everton on December 28.

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