International football is officially over for another year. *Pauses for cheers or jeers*

With the November international break done with, we turn our attention back to domestic football, with a hectic period set to begin in the Premier League.

More fantasy points will be available over the next seven weeks or so than at any other period in the season, such is the jammed nature of the schedule, and there's no better time to get ahead of the curve.

Stats Perform has delved into the Opta data to pick out seven picks for this week, hopefully giving you the edge...

EDOUARD MENDY (Leicester City v Chelsea)

Leicester City may represent a tricky opponent for any team, particularly given their good options going forward, but if anyone can keep them at bay, it's Mendy.

Not only has the Senegal international conceded the joint-fewest goals (four, excluding own goals, minimum of three appearances) in the Premier League, he also leads the way with 3.4 goals prevented, according to expected goals on target data.

In terms of form goalkeepers this season, Aaron Ramsdale runs him close, but Mendy is the outstanding candidate.

JOAO CANCELO (Manchester City v Everton)

City's versatile Portuguese full-back enjoyed an exceptional 2020-21, but he seems to have stepped things up even further this term.

In 17 games in 2021-22 across all competitions, Cancelo has already reached seven goal involvements (two goals, five assists), just one fewer than his haul of eight in 43 outings last term.

He has been hugely influential at City, while it would also hardly be a surprise if they keep a clean sheet against an out-of-sorts Everton.

TRENT ALEXANDER-ARNOLD (Liverpool v Arsenal)

Liverpool's right-back became something of a scapegoat – fairly or not, that's a discussion for another day – in 2020-21. It is safe to say his critics are rather quieter at the moment.

Only Bruno Fernandes (37) can better Alexander-Arnold's 30 chances created in the Premier League this term, while no defender has more than his four assists.

A resurgent Arsenal could cause Liverpool issues, so a clean sheet is no guarantee, but there is no defender more likely to nab you an assist or two.

CONOR GALLAGHER (Burnley v Crystal Palace)

On-loan Chelsea youngster Gallagher has been a revelation for Palace this season, with his all-action style proving a great addition to Patrick Vieira's team.

He has also provided plenty of quality in the final third, having a hand in a team-high six goals (four goals, two assists).

Gallagher has already beaten his combined tally (two goals, two assists) from 2020-21 when he was on loan at West Brom, and he won his first England cap against San Marino earlier this week.

BRUNO FERNANDES (Watford v Manchester United)

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's men have seemingly hobbled from 'crisis' to 'crisis' this season, and while Fernandes arguably has not been as impressive as last season, he is still essential to the Red Devils.

He leads the way with the most chances created (37) in the league this term, and that fits into his wider excellence ever since joining United, a period that has seen him supply the most assists (22) and craft the most goal-scoring opportunities (162) of anyone in the competition.

Additionally, only Mohamed Salah (55) has been involved in more goals than Fernandes (52) in the same period. Regardless of perceptions of his form, the Portugal star is a must-have, particularly given United will fancy their chances of bouncing back at Vicarage Road.

GABRIEL JESUS (Manchester City v Everton)

While he may not be playing in the striker role many might have expected before the season started, instead featuring largely as a right-sided winger, Jesus has made a strong start to 2021-22.

With the South American World Cup qualifiers not extended to a triple-header this month, Jesus is also less of a selection risk than he was after the international breaks in September and October.

But above all, he loves playing Everton. In eight Premier League games against them, Jesus has scored eight times, or roughly one every 69 minutes, and he will be aiming to give the Toffees plenty to chew on yet again this weekend.

SON HEUNG-MIN (Tottenham v Leeds United)

Among the players Antonio Conte will be hoping to get more out of after a slow start to the season, Son is surely near the top of the list.

Since the start of last season, no player has outperformed their expected goals (xG) tally by a greater margin than the South Korean (8.2), with 21 goals from 12.8 xG.

Obviously that can suggest a degree of unsustainable fortune on Son's part, but we all know he is an exceptional player capable of the extraordinary. Leeds are a side who let other teams play, and that might be just what the doctor ordered for Son and Spurs.

The Premier League table continues to take shape as we approach matchday nine, with Liverpool versus Manchester United the headline clash of the weekend.

Mohamed Salah, a fantasy football favourite, will look to further his nine-game scoring run as the Reds travel to Old Trafford, while Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will be hoping the comeback win against Atalanta inspires his side.

Chelsea, whose defence continues to provide valuable clean-sheet points for many a fantasy line-up, face strugglers Norwich City and Manchester City – another clean-sheet machine – travel to Brighton and Hove Albion.

Whether it is the Blues' regimented defence or Jurgen Klopp's shot-hungry attack, Stats Perform uses Opta-powered data to pick out seven potential fantasy stars.

EDOUARD MENDY (Chelsea v Norwich City)

Edouard Mendy was, arguably, the primary reason Chelsea collected all three points at local rivals Brentford last time out.

The goalkeeper produced six second-half saves as he left the Bees in disbelief with his various acrobatics to secure his 20th clean sheet in just 38 top-flight games.

With that many shutouts to his name, he boasts a clean-sheet ratio of 53 per cent – the highest of all keepers with 10-plus starts in Premier League history.

BEN CHILWELL (Chelsea v Norwich City)

Marcos Alonso may have been an early pick but Thomas Tuchel's wing-back roulette now seems to be favouring Ben Chilwell, who is in fine goal-scoring form.

The England left-back not only offers defensive returns, but he has also managed to score in his last three Premier League matches – having registered just two gaols in his first 26 Blues appearances in the competition.

Partnered with Mendy and against a shot-shy Norwich outfit, Chilwell is almost a certainty to provide some much-needed contributions from your backline.

JOAO CANCELO (Brighton and Hove Albion v Manchester City)

Joao Cancelo is the only one of Pep Guardiola's defenders to start all eight top-flight fixtures this term, after fantasy favourite Ruben Dias was surprisingly benched against Burnley.

The versatile full-back is yet to score but boasts the highest expected goals of any defender this term (1.3), while enjoying the most touches in the opposition box among the same category (22).

Only Shane Duffy (14) has attempted more shots than Cancelo (13), and the full-back should also be a shoo-in for clean-sheet bonus points, given no defender has kept more than his six shutouts this season.

MOHAMED SALAH (Manchester United v Liverpool)

By this point, if Salah is not present in your team then questions may need to be asked following his solo 'Goal of the Season' competition he has seemingly created in the last couple of games.

Since the start of March, the Egypt forward has been directly involved in the most goals, with his 18 (12 goals, six assists) two more than Leicester's Kelechi Iheanacho.

A premium but must-buy option for every fantasy outfit, Salah could wreak havoc on Sunday against a somewhat timid Red Devils defence at Old Trafford.

SON HEUNG-MIN (West Ham v Tottenham)

With an unusually out of form Harry Kane failing to deliver for Tottenham, and the majority of fantasy owners, Son Heung-Min has stepped up for Nuno Espirito Santo's side.

The South Korea international has scored four times and assisted once – those contributions worth eight points to Spurs, more than any player in the competition this campaign.

Son, up against West Ham, could provide further joy on Sunday if he is to carry Spurs seemingly single-handedly to victory once more.

PIERRE-EMERICK AUBAMEYANG (Arsenal v Aston Villa)

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has been integral to Arsenal's early-season revival, finding the net in each of his last three top-flight games at Emirates Stadium.

In total, he has managed 42 Premier League goals at the Gunners' home ground, with only Robin van Persie firing in more (46).

Against a wounded Aston Villa defence, who shipped three late goals against Wolves in their last game, can Aubameyang continue his fine scoring run?

RAHEEM STERLING (Brighton and Hove Albion v Manchester City)

Again, err on the side of caution with this pick, given Guardiola's preference to rotate his wealth of playmaking riches regularly.

However, should Raheem Sterling start against Brighton – he could be an unlikely differential to source vital attacking gains in gameweek nine.

The England international has netted four times in four starts against the Seagulls, scoring a hat-trick on his last visit to the South Coast in July 2020.

With another international break almost upon us, fantasy football players will be able to rest easy for a couple of weeks at the start of October.

But first, there are plenty of important points to be had.

With Liverpool hosting Manchester City, Chelsea eager to get back to winning ways and Arsenal preparing for a tricky test at Brighton and Hove Albion, there is plenty of value to be had with some wise selections.

Allow Stats Perform to lend a guiding hand, with the help of Opta data...

 

EDOUARD MENDY (Chelsea v Southampton)

Back-to-back defeats to Manchester City and Juventus have somewhat derailed Chelsea's good start to the season, and Thomas Tuchel will expect a response against Southampton.

Saints have failed to score in their past three league matches and, in Edouard Mendy, they will be facing the goalkeeper with the best save percentage in the division this season (90 per cent), out of those to have played more than once in the competition.

Mendy is conceding just once every 225 minutes on average, a stat likely to worry winless Southampton but bring encouragement to fantasy football players.

 

ANDY ROBERTSON (Liverpool v Manchester City)

Since the start of last season, Andy Robertson has provided eight Premier League assists. The only defender with more is, you guessed it, Liverpool team-mate Trent Alexander-Arnold (nine).

The England right-back is also the only defender since last September with more passes into the box and chances created than Robertson, who has managed 329 and 52 respectively.

With Alexander-Arnold ruled out by Jurgen Klopp due to injury, Robertson could play an even more pivotal role for the Reds against the reigning champions.

 

JOAO CANCELO (Liverpool v Manchester City)

If you are looking for value in both boxes, Joao Cancelo may well be your best bet.

No Premier League defender has had more touches in the opposition box (16), while only Cancelo and team-mate Ruben Dias can boast five clean sheets in the competition in the 2021-22 season so far.

With 10 shots and one assist to his name, Cancelo will be another full-back to watch with interest at Anfield.

WILFRIED ZAHA (Crystal Palace v Leicester City)

Leicester could be vulnerable after a Thursday Europa League trip to Poland, especially with Palace having gone three home games without defeat while conceding just once.

The Foxes also happen to be among Wilfried Zaha's favourite opponents. The Ivory Coast international has six goals and two assists against them in 12 games, more than he has against any other side.

It is perhaps also worth mentioning that, as a player, Palace boss Patrick Vieira played 11 times against Leicester and never lost.

 

ALLAN SAINT-MAXIMIN (Wolves v Newcastle United)

Aside from being one of the most fun players in the top flight, Allan Saint-Maximin is also Newcastle's greatest goal threat.

With two scored and three assisted, he has been directly involved in 71 per cent of all the Magpies' league goals this season and has had a hand in at least one in each of his past four appearances.

Newcastle have only won one of their most recent nine league encounters with Wolves, who themselves have not beaten their next opponents at home since April 1993. Perhaps Saint-Maximin is the man to tip the balance.

 

NEAL MAUPAY (Brighton and Hove Albion v Arsenal)

Speaking of key players, Brighton owe half of their eight league goals this season to Neal Maupay, who is looking to score in three consecutive top-flight matches for the first time in a year.

Arsenal are one of his preferred opponents, too: he has scored the winner in two out of three league meetings with the Gunners.

Mikel Arteta's side should be feeling positive after their derby win, but the Seagulls have won three of their past four home matches in the league, as many as they had managed in their previous 22.

 

ROMELU LUKAKU (Chelsea v Southampton)

After drawing a blank in his previous four outings in all competitions, Romelu Lukaku will be keen to get back among the goals.

Chelsea's record signing will be glad of his next opponents, then: he has nine goals in 12 previous Premier League games against Southampton and has never scored more against a single side in the division.

The Blues have scored six first-half goals in 2021-22 – only Liverpool can match that tally – so an early Lukaku strike may well be on the cards.

Portugal have been dealt a blow ahead of their Euro 2020 campaign, with full-back Joao Cancelo testing positive for COVID-19 and Diogo Dalot called up.

Manchester City right-back Cancelo had an exceptional season for the Premier League champions, and looked set to be a key player for Portugal as they aim to defend their European crown.

Indeed, he scored one and set up another as Portugal ended their preparations with a 4-0 friendly win over Israel on Wednesday.

However, the 27-year-old returned a positive test on Saturday and has now been placed into isolation. Further tests carried out across the rest of the squad revealed no more positive cases.

In accordance with UEFA's rules for the tournament, Portugal have replaced Cancelo with uncapped Manchester United defender Dalot, who spent last season on loan at Milan.

"Under-21 international Diogo Dalot will join the national team's delegation in Budapest to prepare for his debut at Euro 2020," a Portugal statement read.
 
"He will replace Joao Cancelo, who tested positive for COVID-19 following a rapid antigen test carried out this Saturday by the FPF Health and Performance Unit.
 
"The Hungarian health authorities were immediately informed and the player – who is doing well – was placed in isolation.
 
"The result of the test carried out by USP was confirmed by an RT-PCR test carried out on Joao Cancelo also on Saturday and whose result was known on Sunday morning.
 
"In accordance with the COVID-19 protocol defined by UEFA before the EURO 2020 matches, all players and members of the entourage underwent RT-PCR tests on Saturday. The results, with the exception of Joao Cancelo, were negative."

Fernando Santos' side start their campaign against Hungary on Tuesday, before taking on Germany four days later and rounding off their Group F fixtures against world champions France.

Ferran Torres scored his first Manchester City hat-trick as the champions set a new English league record of 12 consecutive away wins with a pulsating 4-3 victory over Newcastle United on Friday.

City – playing their first match since a third Premier League title in four seasons was confirmed on Tuesday – fell behind midway through the first half when Emil Krafth headed past Scott Carson, who was making his first top-flight appearance since May 2011.

Pep Guardiola's side powered back through quickfire goals from Joao Cancelo and Torres, although Joelinton restored parity before the interval from the spot.

Newcastle went ahead again when Joe Willock slotted home after his own penalty was saved by Carson, but Torres scored twice in two minutes to seal a wild win for the champions.

Despite early pressure from City it was the hosts who opened the scoring after 25 minutes, Krafth heading his first Premier League goal from Jonjo Shelvey's corner.

Shelvey then crashed a free-kick against the crossbar before two goals in 185 seconds resulted in City taking the lead.

They pulled level in the 39th minute when Cancelo's strike from just inside the penalty area was deflected past Martin Dubravka by Jacob Murphy. Torres then added a second with a superb backheeled flick that looped over Dubravka from Ilkay Gundogan's free-kick.

The Magpies pulled level in first-half stoppage time, though, Joelinton slamming home from the penalty spot after he had been brought down inside the area by Nathan Ake.

Willock put Steve Bruce's side ahead in the 62nd minute, grateful for a tap-in on the rebound after Carson blocked his tame penalty, which was awarded after Kyle Walker tripped the on-loan Arsenal man.

Torres drew City level again two minutes later, diverting home Gabriel Jesus' low cross from six yards.

He then became the third youngest player, at 21 years and 75 days, to score a Premier League hat-trick for City when he expertly volleyed into the roof of the net after Cancelo's long-range strike crashed back off the post.

Manchester City have won their third Premier League title in the past four seasons, also making it a hat-trick of triumphs in England's top flight for manager Pep Guardiola.

Even more so than when City racked up remarkable 100 and 98-point totals in their back-to-back 2017-18 and 2018-19 successes, this has been a tale of collective endeavour.

After a November defeat at Tottenham left Guardiola's men languishing in 11th, with 12 points from eight games, a steady turnaround occurred, with City establishing irresistible momentum by the early weeks of 2021.

This version of City might not be as freewheeling and freescoring as in previous years – they are set to fall well short of the 102 goals they managed despite coming a distant second to Liverpool last term – but they have proved no less effective.

Here, we look at some of the key figures in their revival.

Ruben Dias

There were a number of factors that helped Guardiola to put the pieces back together after a crushing 5-2 defeat in City's first Premier League home game of the season versus Leicester City, but the fact they secured Dias as a club-record signing from Benfica two days later feels heavily symbolic.

The Portugal centre-back instantly provided the defensive leadership City have lacked since Vincent Kompany's departure in 2019 and shoring things up at the back took the pressure off an attack struggling to adjust to Sergio Aguero's more marginal role.

In Dias' 30 Premier League appearances, City have conceded 18 goals, four of which were penalties, set against an expected goals against (xGA) figure of 21.3. In the 30 games prior to his debut, Guardiola's men conceded 32 goals, including six penalties, from 29.5 xGA against.

The 23-year-old has unquestionably added a layer of steel that City previously lacked - something that was emphatically demonstrated by his heroic midweek showing against Paris Saint-Germain - although he is not the only player responsible for this development.

John Stones

Forlorn battles with form and fitness in 2019-20 left Stones at a career crossroads. Had Eric Garcia signed a new contract instead of running his deal down in order to join Barcelona on a free, his race might have been run at the Etihad Stadium.

Despite a lengthy chase for a senior centre-back – Dias having not been City's first choice – and Nathan Ake's arrival from Bournemouth, Stones chose to buckle down to rich rewards.

He impressed in City's opening 3-1 win over Wolves but then had to bide his time as a rotation option. Those midweek performances persuaded Guardiola to install him at Dias' first-choice partner after some unsteady outings from pervious mainstay Aymeric Laporte.

A goal-costing error on his return to England duty in March and a recent red card at Aston Villa showed some of the old frailties remain, but bravura showings in the Champions League wins at Borussia Dortmund and PSG demonstrated how far the 26-year-old has come.

With Stones on the pitch this season, City have conceded one goal every 195 minutes. Among defenders to have played at least 1,000 minutes in 2020-21, only Chelsea's Antonio Rudiger (219) has a better rate.

Joao Cancelo

Dias' compatriot Cancelo has typified two familiar elements when it comes to Guardiola teams – players often fare far better after a mixed initial season getting used to the Catalan tactician's demands, while innovation and excellence in the full-back areas is usually a sign of things being in very good working order

"He arrived last season, he was confused in the beginning, he expected something we could not offer him but he is a nice guy with a great heart," Guardiola said in January, by which time it had become apparent how effective the former Juventus man was in his hybrid full-back/midfield role.

When City motored clear of the pack during 21-match winning run in all competitions that spanned December to March, Cancelo was key in helping to provide the numerical superiority in midfield Guardiola desires, while also proving versatile enough to operate both inside and outside from right-back or left-back.

Cancelo is the first Premier League player to average more than two tackles (2.7), 1.5 chances created (1.7) and 50 successful passes (61.5) per 90 minutes since Cesc Fabregas in 2017-18. To perhaps underline his unique interpretation of the full-back position, Cancelo is the only defender among the previous 10 players to hit these combined marks, going back to Aaron Ramsey in 2013-14.

Ilkay Gundogan

Particularly this season, everything in a Guardiola team is noticeably connected. The Dias-Stones axis has shored things up to the extent Cancelo can provide both extra midfield protection and an additional creative outlet.

A knock-on from this is Gundogan being able to make hay further up the field. When City last won the league in 2018-19, he performed with distinction in a holding midfield role during the run-in.

This term, the Germany playmaker has been unleashed to devastating effect, hitting a particular purple patch in front of goal as City swept all before them in January and February – netting braces to sink Liverpool and Spurs in the latter month.

In 26 appearances, Gundogan has scored 12 times. His 11 non-penalty goals are three better than any other midfielder in the division.

Gundogan's contributions have been particularly valuable give City's lack of a reliable goalscoring attacker, while also helping Guardiola's now go-to striker-less formation to flourish.

He could still finish the campaign as the lowest scoring top-scorer from a Premier League champion, a distinction presently held by Frank Lampard, who scored 13 times when Chelsea claimed glory in 2004-05.

Kevin De Bruyne

De Bruyne was named PFA Footballers' Footballer of the Year last season and has not stolen the limelight in quite the same way this time around. However, that is perhaps down to his team-mates not leaving him to fight a lone hand as he did for much of the previous campaign.

The Belgium maestro's contribution has still been very impressive. He has five goals and 11 assists in the Premier League, while he has now scored in City's past five Champions League knockout ties.

He has created 74 chances in 24 appearances, averaging 3.44 per 90 minutes – the best rate of any player in the Premier League, albeit down on his remarkable average of 4.37 last season.

Phil Foden

For club and country, Foden has enjoyed the kind of breakout season that seems to have been craved for some time, despite the fact he is still a few weeks shy of his 21st birthday.

A central midfielder as he came through the ranks at City, Foden has largely been deployed as a wide attacker and to devastating effect.

His 12 goal involvements (seven goals, five assists) are more than any under-21 player in the Premier League, while his performance and stunning solo goal in a 4-1 win at Anfield showed his taste for the big occasion – a priceless facet again demonstrated as the England international scored the winner in each leg of the Champions League quarter-final against Dortmund.

Having faced frequent calls to give Foden more game-time, Guardiola now counts the youngster as a practically locked-in selection for big games. As in each of his four seasons in senior football, Foden has featured more regularly, with 26 Premier League appearances and 15 starts to his name.

Manchester City will be looking to stretch their record winning run to 20 matches when they welcome fellow in-form side West Ham to the Etihad Stadium in the Premier League this weekend.

Pep Guardiola's men are 10 points clear at the summit and two of their players feature among our Opta-fuelled fantasy picks, along with a couple of Everton men on the back of last week's long-awaited derby win at Liverpool.

Manchester United, Tottenham and Leicester City players are also selected ahead of games against Chelsea, Burnley and Arsenal respectively.

 

EDERSON

There are many factors behind the leaders' winning run - not least an incredible defensive record, with goalkeeper Ederson more than playing his part.

The Brazil international has kept 15 clean sheets from 24 Premier League games this term, averaging one every 1.6 matches.

Only two keepers to have played at least 10 times have averaged fewer games per clean sheet across an entire season - Chelsea's Petr Cech (24 in 35 apps in 2004-05) and former Manchester United stopper Edwin van der Sar (21 in 33 apps in 2008-09).

JOAO CANCELO

Simply keeping out the opposition is not enough in the life of a modern day full-back, best epitomised by Cancelo at Man City.

On top of helping City to that formidable defensive record, he has also created the most chances (34) from open play among fellow Premier League defenders this season.

Cancelo may only have set up two goals in the top flight this season, but he has the highest number of expected assists (4.28) among defenders, just ahead of Manchester United's Luke Shaw (4.04).

 

LUCAS DIGNE

Carlo Ancelotti was delighted with the news Digne had signed a new long-term deal with Everton this week and little wonder given the full-back's impact on the side.

No Premier League defender has more assists than the 27-year-old's six this season - level with West Ham's Aaron Cresswell and one more than Andy Robertson and Shaw.

Since Digne's debut for Everton in August 2018, only Liverpool pair Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold (28) have assisted more goals than the Frenchman (17).

GYLFI SIGURDSSON

There was a point when Sigurdsson's time at Everton appeared to be up not so long ago, but the creative midfielder has more than proved his worth to the side of late.

He was been involved in six Premier League goals in 23 appearances this term - four goals and two assists - which is one more than he managed in 35 games last season.

That is a tally he will be confident of building on this gameweek, as the Iceland international has only scored more Premier League goals against Chelsea (six) than he has versus opponents Southampton (five).

 

MARCUS RASHFORD

In the week he celebrates the five-year anniversary since scoring twice on his United debut, Rashford takes on his favourite opponents in Chelsea.

The United academy product has scored five times against the Blues in all competitions and registered a couple of assists.

Only against Leicester City has he found the net as many times, while only against Newcastle United and West Ham (both seven) has he been directly involved in more goals.

HARRY KANE

If Rashford enjoys playing against Chelsea, the same is true of Kane against Tottenham's next opponents Burnley.

The England skipper has been directly involved in 10 goals in nine Premier League appearances against the Clarets, finding the net seven times and laying on three assists.

Burnley's defenders will not look forward to coming up against Kane, with Riyad Mahrez the only player to score against them more often (eight times) in their Premier League history.

 

JAMIE VARDY

Vardy's scoring record against the division's traditional top four is well known by now, particularly when it comes to facing Arsenal.

The Leicester striker has scored 11 goals in 12 previous Premier League appearances against the Gunners, including a late winner in the reverse fixture.

Those 11 strikes place Vardy behind only Wayne Rooney for goals scored against Arsenal in the competition, the United legend netting 12 times against the London club in his career.

Bernardo Silva revealed a personal competition between himself and Manchester City team-mate Ruben Dias helped to inspire his opening goal in Tuesday's 2-0 win over Borussia Monchengladbach.

Silva headed City into a 29th-minute lead in the first leg of their Champions League last-16 tie in Budapest before nodding down for Gabriel Jesus to score midway through the second half.

It was the diminutive playmaker's 35th goal for City in all competitions and, perhaps a little surprisingly, his third with his head.

Speaking to BT Sport after the game, Silva explained he and Portugal team-mate Ruben Dias – a centre-back certainly more adept in the air but yet to open his account for City – are competing to see who can score the most headers this season.

"Usually I'm not [good at scoring headers]. I try to practice a lot – especially now with Ruben," he said.

"We make a little competition to see who scores the most goals with the head.

"I think I was lucky that Joao [Cancelo] gave me a great ball and, yes, I'm happy to have scored and helped the team."

Speaking at a news conference after the game, boss Pep Guardiola said Silva's work on his heading on the training ground – irrespective of whether it is mainly for bragging rights – had not gone unnoticed.

"He is really good at headers, he is really good! I saw in the training sessions," he said.

"When you make an action for a header you have to use the body, not just the head. He used his neck perfectly. He was strong, the goal was fantastic.

"Attacking midfielders have to arrive in the box and Bernardo and Gundo [Ilkay Gundogan] have this quality."

Another of Silva's international team-mates, Joao Cancelo, was named man of the match after he supplied a sumptuous cross for the opener and the centre that led to Jesus' close-range effort.

"He's an amazing player. I've played with him seven years at Benfica. We're from the same generation," Silva added, with Dias also having also come through the ranks with the Lisbon giants.

"I know him very well, so the connection is good. He knows my timing, I know how good he is on these kind of balls.

"It was a very good goal because of his passing qualities. Overall, he's been doing a great season and I'm very happy for him."

Pep Guardiola insists Manchester City must be sharper in front of goal if they are to end their quest for Champions League glory.

City won 2-0 in the first leg of their last-16 tie against Borussia Monchengladbach in Budapest, with Bernardo Silva and Gabriel Jesus on target either side of half-time.

Despite watching his team show almost complete domination while racking up a 19th consecutive win in all competitions, Guardiola sometimes cut a frustrated figure on the sidelines at the Puskas Arena.

Speaking to BT Sport after the match, the City boss warned his players not to repeat the mistakes of botched chances that have stained three consecutive quarter-final exits.

"In general, it was good," he said. "We controlled the game, we concede one chance at the end.

"Unfortunately, we were not clinical enough up front – one against one, against the defender and keeper

"It's something we have to improve in this competition.

"The situation is clear – the one against one against the keeper or against the defenders and we were not able to even dribble.

"In this competition, you have to be perfect to make sure you go through."

Jesus and Raheem Sterling were among those to show hesitation when presented with opportunities in the Gladbach area, with four of City's nine attempts over the course of the 90 minutes on target.

Three missed the mark, while a further two were blocked.

Both goals owed much to Joao Cancelo's sublime deliveries from the left, with Bernardo Silva heading in his fellow Portugal international's cross for the 29th-minute opener.

Silva then nodded down another fine centre for Jesus to smuggle home after the hour.

"He has to improve sometimes and take some risks in some positions but he gives us something special in our process of play," Guardiola said of Cancelo.

"His physicality is so strong. I'm very pleased for the two passes to assist in the final third."

City have progressed from all four of their previous Champions League two-legged knockout ties when they have won the first leg away from home.

But Guardiola baulked at the notion of his team being favourites for European glory, having watched holders and his former employers Bayern Munich demolish Lazio 4-1 on Tuesday.

"When I see Bayern Munich yesterday, I would not think so," he added, before insisting City's sole focus is their next Premier League game this weekend.

"But my target now is just West Ham. For three weeks, we do not know what happens [in the Champions League].

"If the people say [we are favourites], we have to accept it. A team who in our whole history have arrived once in the semi-finals. Okay, it's no problem."

Bernardo Silva and Gabriel Jesus were on target as Manchester City put one foot in the Champions League quarter-finals with an assured 2-0 win over Borussia Monchengladbach

Pep Guardiola's side dominated the vast majority of this last-16 first leg and the City manager might have been frustrated by the failure to turn that into a more commanding lead until Jesus prodded in after 65 minutes.

Silva and Joao Cancelo created that goal after the Portugal duo had also combined for the 29th-minute opener, with the full-back's dipping delivery from the left for his diminutive compatriot to head home a truly sublime moment.

It brings a familiar hurdle into sight for the Premier League leaders, who have fallen at the quarter-final stage in each of the past three seasons.

Gladbach soon found themselves hemmed in by City's slick passing and astute pressing, with last-ditch challenges needed to thwart Jesus and Raheem Sterling.

Guardiola's men were content to bide their time and the opener arrived just before the half hour, with Silva nodding in Cancelo's sumptuous cross from deep at the back post.

Ramy Bensebaini sloppily gave the ball to Jesus in the 53rd minute but he hesitated and let Nico Elvedi get back to make a goal-saving challenge.

A rare moment of encouragement arrived for Gladbach as the hour approached, with Denis Zakaria powering past Rodri but overhitting a pass into the City box that Ederson swept up easily.

The Brazil goalkeeper was scampering in the 63rd minute when Alassane Plea's audacious flick bounced just beyond the far post.

Those minor scares roused City and Jesus showed sharp poaching instincts when Silva again played the unlikely role of back-post target man to tee him up.

When Phil Foden thrashed over from Ilkay Gundogan's 78th-minute knockdown, it was no surprise that Cancelo's chipped ball into the box crafted the opening.

A careless pass in stoppage time from Rodri gave Gladbach substitute Hannes Wolf a chance to reduce the deficit but Ederson prevailed in their one-on-one.
 

What does it mean? Savvy City look primed to push for glory

As Gladbach failed to register a single touch inside their opponents' box during the first half at Budapest's Puskas Arena, it was impossible to imagine this City getting involved in the sort of Champions League firefights that have proved their downfall – ties finishing 6-6 and 4-4 on aggregate against Monaco and Tottenham, only to depart on away goals, springing instantly to mind.

Such total control means Guardiola's team are unlikely to quicken the pulse as they did on those occasions but it makes the one major honour to have eluded the Catalan in Manchester a far more likely prospect.

What's next

City host in-form West Ham in the Premier League on Saturday, when Gladbach travel to title-chasing RB Leipzig in the Bundesliga.

Manchester United's opening-day 3-1 defeat to Crystal Palace was a chastening reminder of the team's frailties, but there was a somewhat surprising voice behind the subsequent call-to-action for the club's hierarchy.

Luke Shaw provided undoubtedly the most honest assessment of the situation among United players, this from a player who had rarely come across as a natural leader during his time at the club.

"We have a very good group, but personally I think we need more players to strengthen the squad," he told Norway's TV2. "It can give us a boost. When you look around at how other teams are strengthening their teams, then we must also do it to keep up with the others."

Perhaps the fact he wasn't speaking to a British outlet resulted in a more relaxed, open response from Shaw, who then also went on to criticise their pre-season.

But it was a new, authoritative look for a player who has always seemingly preferred to keep away from the media spotlight, and few United fans would have disagreed with him.

What happened next, however, he probably didn't expect – among the four players signed on deadline day in October was a new left-back, a Brazil international with the kind of attack-minded profile many had hoped Shaw would develop at United.

While Shaw definitely showed signs of progress in 2019-20, Alex Telles' arrival was the clearest sign that his position was no longer assured – he needed to respond.

 

A SHAW THING

The fact Telles has made just six Premier League starts in his debut season at Old Trafford is as good a starting point as any when highlighting Shaw's improved standing, and in fairness to the new signing, he's hardly put a foot wrong.

Telles has looked a solid acquisition and certainly fits the bill as a forward-thinking full-back who is also capable defensively, but Shaw has reached a level he has arguably never shown before in his career.

As an attacking outlet, Shaw's output has improved almost across the board, as such he has made himself almost undroppable.

 

His five assists is already a personal high for a Premier League season, having only managed seven in total before 2020-21, but that's just the tip of the iceberg. He is creating 2.3 chances per 90 minutes, which is up from one last term and well clear of his previous best of 1.2 each game for an entire campaign.

Undoubtedly one reason for that is the fact he is taking more set-pieces, yet his average of 1.4 open play chances created per 90 minutes remains a frequency he has never matched before over the course of a season, proving his increased familiarity with dead-ball duties isn't skewing the data.

A quick glance at his average position activity maps shows his involvement in the left-hand channel of the attacking third is up on each of the past two seasons, as well as his final year with Southampton.

 

This shows Shaw is embracing greater attacking responsibility, and where that is reflected most is the number of passes (including crosses) he is playing into the box each game (7.4). His last season with Saints had been his best in this regard (4.4), yet he's way up on that, and his productivity here is more than two-and-a-half times what it was in 2019-20 (2.9).

Shaw's early days with Southampton appeared to promise much. Finally, he appears to be back on track, not that it's been smooth sailing.

 

COPING, OUTLASTING, PROGRESSING

Shaw's relationship with Jose Mourinho became something of a distraction at times during the Portuguese's ill-fated reign.

Granted, Shaw wasn't the only player Mourinho seemed to have a problem with, but his treatment of Shaw in particular did leave a sour taste.

In two-and-a-half years playing for Mourinho, Shaw only made 33 Premier League appearances. While he did have injury and fitness problems, the manager's attitude seemingly did little to endear himself to the player.

Mourinho publicly criticised him after a 2016 defeat to Watford, saying: "For the second goal, [Nordin] Amrabat on the right side, our left-back is 25 metres distance from him, instead of five metres. But even at 25 metres, then you have to jump and go press. But no, we wait."

Mourinho then used Shaw's positive performance against Everton in 2017 against him. He said: "He had a good performance, but it was his body with my brain. He was in front of me and I was making every decision for him."

This isn't to say Shaw has been faultless this season. In fact, his defensive focus has been questionable at times in 2020-21, such as against Tottenham and Manchester City, for example.

But it's fair to say the greater attacking impetus he is showing this term compared to under Mourinho means he is more than making up for the occasional defensive lapse, and it's not like he's being beaten time after time – on average Shaw is dribbled past once every two games, the second lowest frequency for a single season in his entire career.

The difference? Well, according to the man himself, belief and competition.

"I feel really good, obviously big credit to Ole for that for believing in me and pushing me," Shaw said last month. "Alex [Telles] as well, we have a great relationship and he pushes me each day in training. We get on really well. It's nice to have that type of competition, but we push each other to get the best from ourselves. When he plays, I want the best for him, and it's the same the other way round. It's a positive way for both of us to look at it and push each other."

 

THE BEST?

There was a time – not even that long ago – when the very suggestion of Shaw being among the Premier League's best full-backs would have drawn a chuckle of derision in response.

Granted, across the four seasons prior to 2020-21, Shaw's best record of open play chances created per 90 minutes was 0.2, but there can be no doubt he is now at least in the conversation.

 

Liverpool's Andy Robertson is generally seen as the standard-bearer for left-backs in England's top flight, and Shaw compares well from an attacking sense with the Scotland international.

Shaw's 40 chances created this term is one more than Robertson, while the latter is just ahead in terms of key passes in open play (29 to 24) – though the United man has made 20 appearances to his rival's 24.

Robertson is proving a more regular source of service, with his 213 passes into the box and 201 total crosses/corners far more than Shaw's respective numbers (129 and 105), but the United left-back's deliveries are far more reliable.

Shaw's 37 successful crosses/corners is just five fewer than Robertson despite playing almost half the amount of overall deliveries.

But what really highlights Shaw's growth is his xA (expected assists) figures. His xA per 90, so the amount of assists he would ordinarily be expected to get per game, is 0.21 in 2020-21. Not only is that better than his previous best by some distance (0.12), Joao Cancelo (0.24) is the only full-back doing better here this term.

 

Shaw has made himself almost indispensable to United, his influence all the more important given Aaron Wan-Bissaka isn't particularly refined as an attacking outlet and they very rarely play with conventional wingers on either flank.

Therefore, Shaw offers the kind of threat from the wings that arguably no one else in the United squad does – and as his xA record shows, he is proving a consistent danger that marks him out as one of the league's best.

After being plagued by questions relating to his mentality for years, it's fair to say he is responding in the ideal fashion, with Telles' signing seemingly an important catalyst.

While it might be a little early to declare him outright the Premier League's best, his current trajectory at least shows that to be a realistic aim.

Pep Guardiola does not enjoy press conferences at the best of times.

As he sat down, drew his hands across his face and squeezed together a furrowed brow after Manchester City's 5-2 defeat at home to Leicester City last September, he looked like he'd rather be anywhere else in the world.

"After 2-1 and 3-1 we were not strong enough to be stable and be patient," he said, having watched Riyad Mahrez fire his team into an early lead before they collapsed shambolically and gave away three penalties.

"We started to think we were playing bad when we were not playing bad."

The lack of belief Guardiola eluded to owed much to City playing through a fog of bitter disappointment that still cloaked them following the 3-1 Champions League quarter-final defeat to Lyon the previous month.

A short turnaround to the new campaign was compromised by coronavirus cases and the overall impression was of something broken within a squad Guardiola was taking charge of for a fifth season – his longest spell at a single club.

At that moment, if you had been told one team would be unbeaten in 20 matches and the other would be seven points off the pace in the title racing heading into this Sunday's showdown between Liverpool and City at Anfield, your first reaction might have been surprise that the team from Manchester were only seven points behind.

THE ENFORCER

Two days after the Leicester debacle, Ruben Dias became City's record signing for £62million.

The void left by long-serving captain Vincent Kompany was considerable during 2019-20, with a long-term injury to Aymeric Laporte and Nicolas Otamendi's erratic form compounding matters at centre-back.

Wanting Dias to improve things was not too much to ask. However, his impact has been utterly transformative.

An instant mainstay, he has started three more games (26) than any of his team-mates across all competitions. Dias' one substitute outing came with City 1-0 down and facing FA Cup embarrassment at Cheltenham Town last month. They won 3-1.

The Portugal international's 2,298 minutes on the field are 228 – or two and a half games – more than any of his colleagues.

He leads the way in terms of headed clearances (34), while 57 aerials won and 32 interceptions have him second only to Rodri and Joao Cancelo within the City squad.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given his time on the field and position, Dias' 2,241 passes – at an accuracy of 93.4 per cent – are the most in the City squad, while his confidence in carrying the ball out from the back to start attacks underlines his suitability to Guardiola's style.

Dias' 470 carries – instances of him moving with the ball five metres or more – are the second best in the division, while he leads the way in the Premier League in terms of carries shifting the ball up field between five and 10 metres (177).

"He’s not just a player who plays good, he's a player who makes the other guys play good too," Guardiola said.

"It’s 90 minutes talking, 90 minutes communicating, 90 minutes saying what they have to do in every single action.

"When that happens, it's difficult for me [to pick anyone else] and [Dias becomes] un-droppable."

This Dias effect is probably easiest to spot in John Stones, who is similarly one of the first names on Guardiola's team sheet this season, having been frequently passed over despite the sorry state of the defence last time around.

In the 11 Premier League matches Stones and Dias have started together in defence, City have won 10, drawn one and conceded just once – an injury-time consolation for Callum Hudson-Odoi during a 3-1 win at Chelsea.

Such dominant form did not simply come packaged up with Dias' transfer fee, though. During England's autumn and early winter months, Guardiola had another problem.

The team that pilfered 102, 95 and 106 goals in the previous three Premier League were struggling to find the net.

THE ARTIST

If getting hammered by Leicester marks the first pivot point in City's season, December's dour 0-0 draw in the Manchester derby at Old Trafford is the second.

"There was no intent there, whether it was on the pitch, or from the managers to win that match," an unimpressed Gary Neville said on Sky Sports afterwards.

"If Jose Mourinho was the manager of either one of those two teams, we'd be killing them now. We'd be saying it's not good enough, it's boring, it's parking the bus."

Along with bringing in Dias, Guardiola tweaked his team structure after the Leicester game. Generally, Rodri would be accompanied by a second holding midfielder and his wingers would be inverted to guard against counter-attacks.

In the nine Premier League matches played after the Leicester game, up to and including the Manchester derby, City won four, drew four and lost one.

Over this period, they had the joint-best defence in the division with five conceded, level with Tottenham despite playing a game more. However, 12 goals scored was joint-ninth in the division alongside Crystal Palace, who managed the haul in eight outings to City's nine.

In terms of minutes per goal, City's 67.5 made them the 11th most prolific team in the top flight, below Newcastle United (65.45).

The creative burden sat largely with Kevin De Bruyne, who claimed five assists during these matches. No other City player supplied more than one.

On the face of it, the following game against West Brom suggested the pattern was set to continue. A 1-1 draw after dominating possession but creating relatively little until a stoppage-time flurry amounted to a dispiriting night's work at a soggy Etihad Stadium.

But Ilkay Gundogan's performance against the Baggies was indicative of the shackles being loosened. The Germany international scored and has not looked back.

From the West Brom match onwards, Gundogan has netted seven goals in 10 appearances – more than any other Premier League player during this time – to swiftly rack up the most prolific season of his professional career.

A look at the playmaker's pitch maps if we split the season in this way shows a deliberate effort from Guardiola to get further up the field a player he credits as having "a special sense of finishing".

Before facing the Baggies, Gundogan made more than 70 per cent of his touches in the middle third of the field, with fewer than 20 per cent in the final third. These figures have now shifted to 50.5 and 41.2 respectively. This has not only yielded an increase in Gundogan's goals return, but his chances created (22) since being granted a more attacking role can only be bettered by De Bruyne (23), although injury means the Belgium star has played three fewer games.

It is to Gundogan's credit that the PFA Players' Player of the Year is not being especially missed right now, while his smooth style wreaking havoc in the small pockets of space that deep-lying defences allow means David Silva's close-season departure is no longer being so keenly felt.

"Ilkay was one of the best players I ever coached. Especially in the 2012 season, he was unbelievable and played pretty much like he is playing now," said former Borussia Dortmund boss Jurgen Klopp ahead of this weekend's reunion.

"Then he had, unfortunately, some injuries, really tough injuries, but that's now all sorted. He was always that player.

"When you are smart and experience comes into play as well, then it's another jump in your performance level. I'm not surprised at all."

THE WONDERKID

Actions do not happen independently within Guardiola's playing style of Juego de Posicion, where team structure is paramount.

In other words, Gundogan hasn't just been told to run into the box more often and see what happens. Changes have taken place to shift his position higher up the field.

One of these is a more aggressive approach with wingers.

"I didn't like much the way we were playing. We've come back to where we were in the previous seasons with the wingers wider and higher and come back to our principles," Guardiola explained.

"For many reasons – little rest, a lack of physical condition, the COVID many, many players had – we had to adapt the way we play for the quality of the players we had in that moment in better conditions.

"In the end, I felt wingers wide and high helped us to be more stable and have more control in many aspects."

One of the players to thrive more than most within this set-up is Phil Foden.

Guardiola used the boyhood City fan in a variety of attacking positions before leaving him as a frustrated unused substitute at Old Trafford. Since then, every start Foden has made in City's on-going winning streak of nine Premier League matches has been on the left wing.

It marks a departure from the inverted wingers earlier on in the campaign, with the left-footed Foden generally deployed in parallel to Raheem Sterling on the right, the two England stars serving to stretch the area opponents have to defend and open up space for the likes of Gundogan and Bernardo Silva inside them.

Again, starting after the Leicester game and applying the same pre- and post-derby split as we did to Gundogan, Foden's numbers are on the up.

During City's period of consolidation, he created three chances in eight appearances (two starts) at a shade under one every 90 minutes. Since then he has created 18 at an average of 3.2 per game. With him in the side in the Premier League this term, City's shots per game rise average rises from 13.6 to 18.2

Foden's most important contribution during this period was the only goal in a hard-fought 1-0 win over Brighton and Hove Albion. He is another player helping to share the goal burden and make light of Sergio Aguero's on-going absence, with nine in all competitions.

Guardiola feels Foden's energy and dribbling ability, along with this goalscoring knack, gives City a vital attacking edge, even though he still views him as a "number eight" in the long term. For now, his right-back very often fills the latter position.

THE WILDCARD

"He arrived last season, he was confused in the beginning. He expected something we could not offer him," the City boss said of Joao Cancelo last month.

Now it is opponents who find themselves repeatedly baffled by where the Portugal full-back crops up on the field.

Creative use of his wide defenders is nothing new for Guardiola. During his time at Bayern Munich, he shifted the likes of Rafinha, David Alaba and Philipp Lahm inside, with the dual benefit of swarming central areas when in possession and having bodies to thwart the counter if the ball was lost.

Fabian Delph, Kyle Walker and Oleksandr Zinchenko have all operated in a similar fashion at times for Guardiola's City, although always with the primary aim of assisting the holding midfielder. While Cancelo does this to fine effect – another factor in Gundogan being unleashed – he also operates with a broader attacking brief.

Walker and Cancelo's touch maps for this season illustrate how Guardiola has used his senior right-backs differently.

Walker plays a full part in City's build-up from deep but the majority of his touches – 54 per cent – come on the right flank either side of the halfway line. This is the return of a fairly conventional right-back.

Cancelo's numbers are spread around, in part because of the games he has started at left-back. But 187 of his touches (12.5 per cent) have come in attacking central areas between the halfway line and the edge of the opposition penalty area, compared to 97 (7.6 per cent) for Walker.

Despite not always starting at right-back, Cancelo (231) also has slightly more touches than Walker (228) on the right-hand side of the final third, along with 162 in advanced positions down the left flank.

In short, he's everywhere and his value to attack and defence simultaneously is underlined by a high ranking within the City squad across a number of categories.

Cancelo is third among his team-mates in the Premier League this season for passes (1,108) and recoveries (88), joint-second for dribbles attempted (49) and chances created (31), second outright for tackles (32) and leads the way with 24 interceptions.

Some of those close to Guardiola believe the Catalan's innovations with full-backs are his greatest tactical contribution to football. With Cancelo, he is pushing the envelope once more.

THE MENTOR

One of the biggest reasons Guardiola felt comfortable doubling down on his footballing vision during – within the context of his career – a time of crisis can often be found sitting on the other side of a vacant, social-distance enabling dugout seat in animated conversation with the City boss.

Juanma Lillo was appointed as assistant coach at City last June. He and Guardiola go back much further.

When he played for Barcelona, Guardiola was so struck by how impressively Lillo's Real Oviedo played during a 4-2 defeat in September 1996 that he sought him out after the game.

A friendship was formed, and Guardiola closed out his playing days with Dorados de Sinaloa, purely so he could play under Lillo. Alas, there is no Netflix documentary for that period of the Mexican club's history.

Alongside the late Johan Cruyff, Lillo is considered to have had the most significant shaping influence upon Guardiola the coach, which makes his presence as City tried to plot a route away from mid-table earlier this season feel significant.

"It would not have been possible, what we have done so far – which is nothing [in terms of trophies], but being there in the table – without his influence on me," Guardiola said of Lillo last week.

"He knows exactly what I need to hear in the right moment. He sees something that I am not able to see, he has a special sense to read the game that is difficult to find worldwide.

"Especially in the bad moments, he is a guy who makes me feel calm and makes me see the real situation of the team. Juanma's influence during this period has been so, so, so important.

"He's important to me and that is what I need."

Watching the superb wins over Chelsea and at Manchester United in the EFL Cup after the turn of the year was to witness a realisation of the vision Guardiola and Lillo fanatically share.

An array of central midfielders streamed into the space where there was no specialist centre-forward, Cancelo roved with abandon and Dias and Stones launched attacks from in front of their bolted back door. Everything was connected.

In an interview with The Blizzard in 2012, Lillo was asked to qualify his assertion that there is no such thing as attack and defence.

"Of course. How can attack and defence exist if we don't have the ball. How can one exist without the other?" he said.

"You can't take things out of their context because they are no longer the same thing, even if you then plan to piece things back together again.

"You can't take an arm off Rafa Nadal and train it separately. If you did, when you put it back in it may create an imbalance."

Guardiola hasn't taken to hacking limbs off his players as with Lillo's Frankenstein Nadal, but he believes a key to their success lately has been using their legs less.

"The reason why we played not good was because, when we had the ball, we moved too much and ran too much. Football, when you have the ball almost you have to walk and run in the right moment," he explained, in a succinct summary of his and Lillo's philosophy.

"When we don't have the ball, we have to run like the last ball in your life. With the ball now we are more calm, more passes, everyone is more in the position and that's why we are able to play a little bit better."

Through standing still, City have taken a huge leap forward over recent weeks. If they are able to win at Anfield for the first time since 2003 – a game that launches a sequence of Premier League games against Tottenham, Arsenal, West Ham and Manchester United – it will become a little bit harder to see anyone catching them.

Manchester City are threatening to run away from the rest of the Premier League and their success has been in a large part down to the previously unsung Ilkay Gundogan.

As they prepare to face Sheffield United, who surprisingly may be relishing a second trip to Manchester in four days, we look at who else is making City tick.

A trio of Pep Guardiola's players feature among our Opta-fuelled fantasy picks, along with high performers from Chelsea, Leicester City, West Ham and Crystal Palace.

EDOUARD MENDY

One thing is for certain: Chelsea's new boss Thomas Tuchel will know all about Mendy. Tuchel's old Paris Saint-Germain side faced Mendy twice in Ligue 1 during the goalkeeper's Reims days, scoring four the first time but just once second time around in a shock defeat. Last season saw Mendy help Rennes finish third in the French top flight.

The goalkeeper conceded just three times in his first eight Premier League games for Chelsea but has shipped 11 in eight matches since that bright start.

Clean sheets in two of his past three league games, however, suggest Mendy and the Chelsea defence are getting their act together.

Ahead of a home clash with Burnley, only one goalkeeper - City's Ederson (61 per cent) - has kept a higher share of clean sheets in the Premier League this season than Tuchel's new number one, with Mendy avoiding conceding in eight of his 16 appearances.

JOAO CANCELO

Move over Andy Robertson, there's a new defensive assist king in town. City's Cancelo has created more chances from open play than any defender in the Premier League this season after setting up 30 opportunities.

Admittedly, Robertson is second on that list after making 27 chances for Liverpool team-mates, but Cancelo has played four fewer games than the Scot.

With City facing the Blades at the Etihad Stadium this weekend, the flying full-back will doubtless be eyeing up more forward missions.

RUBEN DIAS

If City are to succeed where neighbours Manchester United failed, by keeping out the Blades, then Dias may have a big role to play.

The Portuguese centre-back has achieved more clean sheets than any other Premier League defender this season, playing in 10 games where City have had shutouts.

He is yet to score but has an xG value of 1.4, suggesting he is getting into positions from where he might soon be due a goal.

Only James Tarkowski (1.62) and Adam Webster (1.66) have a higher xG value without scoring among Premier League defenders this season.

HARVEY BARNES

Leicester winger Barnes is enjoying a purple patch after scoring three times and claiming two assists in his past six Premier League games.

Perhaps back him while he's hot as Leicester host Leeds United on Sunday.

Barnes has six goals and three assists in the top flight this season, while he also scored six and assisted eight goals across the previous Premier League campaign.

ILKAY GUNDOGAN

It seemed unlikely that Gundogan would be the man to step up and be City's top scorer in the absence of Sergio Aguero this season.

Despite Aguero having been rarely available, the name of Gundogan at the top of City's list of Premier League top scorers might mystify many.

But his seven goals have come from some exhilarating performances, and all have come in his past eight league games. This weekend he could become the first German player to score in four consecutive Premier League appearances.

WILFRIED ZAHA

Where would Palace be without Zaha? The Championship seems a likely answer to that, as again his goals and attacking drive are propping up their campaign.

Palace are suffering at the moment, though, having won just one of their past nine league matches, so Saturday's home game with Wolves would be a good moment for Zaha to fire.

He has nine goals in 17 Premier League appearances this season – only in 2018-19, when he netted 10 times, has he managed more in a single campaign in the competition.

MICHAIL ANTONIO

West Ham are challenging for Champions League football. Those eight words are a lot to take in, but Antonio has had a big say in their success this season.

He has five goals in 12 games in the Premier League and two goals and an assist in his past three outings ahead of a home clash with Liverpool, who sit just behind the Hammers.

Antonio enjoys facing Liverpool, having scored more goals against the Reds than any other West Ham player in the Premier League era. His four goals in six appearances against the reigning champions shows Antonio should not be overawed by Sunday's London Stadium occasion.

Could he rub salt into Liverpool's wounds as Jurgen Klopp's side, and their vulnerable defence, wonder where their title challenge has gone to?

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."

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