Kevin De Bruyne was handed his first start since January 20 as Pep Guardiola was also able to welcome Ilkay Gundogan back from injury for Manchester City's clash with Arsenal.

Having suffered a hamstring injury in a 2-0 win over Aston Villa last month, De Bruyne came on as a substitute to help Premier League leaders City beat Everton 3-1 on Wednesday.

City won that rearranged fixture at Goodison Park without Gundogan, who had stepped up in De Bruyne's absence.

The Germany international scored twice and won a penalty in City's 3-0 win over Spurs last weekend but later sustained a minor groin injury.

Both De Bruyne and Gundogan – who has scored nine league goals since the turn of the year – were named in Guardiola's line up for the meeting with the Gunners, managed by former City assistant Mikel Arteta.

Phil Foden, who scored against Everton, made way, along with Gabriel Jesus, seemingly accommodating De Bruyne's place in a false nine role he has occupied in several matches this term, with Sergio Aguero again only deemed fit enough for a place on the bench.

Guardiola made five changes in all, welcoming back captain Fernandinho, centre-back John Stones and full-back Oleksandr Zinchenko.

Meanwhile, Arsenal were boosted by the return of Kieran Tierney from injury. The left-back had been absent from the XI since January 18.

Arteta also made five changes from Arsenal's 4-2 win over Leeds United last week,

Tierney's introduction was one of five changes from Arteta compared to the side that started in the 4-2 win over Leeds United last week, with Pablo Mari and Rob Holding forming a new centre-back pairing.

Mohamed Elneny and Nicolas Pepe - the latter replacing Emile Smith Rowe - were also brought in.

Kevin De Bruyne has a fight on his hands to win a place back in Manchester City's starting XI, but Pep Guardiola insists he would not have it any other way.

De Bruyne, the reigning PFA Players' Player of the Year, made his return from a hamstring injury as a second-half substitute during City's 3-1 win over Everton in midweek – a result that increased their lead at the top of the Premier League to 10 points.

Guardiola's side won all five top-flight games De Bruyne missed, scoring 15 times and conceding once, while they also negotiated away ties at Cheltenham Town and Swansea City in the FA Cup.

It is a body of work that has helped to rack up a record-breaking 17-match winning run across all competitions.

Bernardo Silva has excelled on the right of Guardiola's fluid midfield three, as he did when De Bruyne missed chunks of City's treble-winning campaign of 2018-19, and this is another factor to give the City boss food for thought heading into Sunday's trip to Arsenal.

"I cannot forget, [during] this incredible run of games, Kevin was there," Guardiola said. "We have not done these incredible things without him.

"But, of course, it is a challenge. He has to play good. That is what we need. That's what I want and that's what he wants.

"The competition is so healthy, today in this crazy schedule – 11 months, playing every three days. It is not human to maintain mentally and physically."

In all competitions this season, City have won 15 of 21 games with De Bruyne in their starting line-up, drawing four and losing two.

However, that impressive win percentage figure of 71.4 vaults to 87.5 – 14 victories, two draws, no defeats – when he has been injured or taken out of the first XI to rest.

Guardiola believes watching on from the sidelines and witnessing fine performances is fuel for De Bruyne, whose 15 assists on all fronts remains the best return of any Premier League player in 2020-21, with only Bruno Fernandes (90) and Jack Grealish (79) able to better his 74 chances created.

"It is so good, when a player is out injured or for my decisions, seeing his mates playing good and winning games. That is the best way to be a competitor, the best way," said Guardiola.

"We cannot be a competitor team if everyone knows, 'It doesn't matter what happens, I am going to play.'

"They have to play good to stay in the team because they know, when they are not playing good, they have no chance to stay in the team."

This sense of collective endeavour is backed up by City's capacity to work effectively off the ball – a hallmark of all Guardiola's best sides.

No team in the Premier League has had more high turnovers resulting in a shot this term than their 49, with Brighton and Hove Albion second on 35.

In terms of winning the ball back within 40 metres of the opposition goal, only Liverpool (227) have done so more often than City (224) this season.

However, perhaps with an eye on the compressed schedule Guardiola mentioned, it also appears his team are working smarter.

In 2019-20, City ranked third in the division behind Liverpool and Southampton when it came to pressed sequences – defined by Opta as passages of play where an opponent has three or fewer passes and it ends within 40 metres of their own goal.

This time around, they lie sixth on that metric and are allowing rivals an average of 11.9 passes per defensive action (PPDA), as opposed to 10.1 last term – figures that underline an increased efficiency to their pressing, given the impressive high turnover numbers.

"It's about being effective when you run. If you run, run, run you are not effective," Guardiola said. "The ball is quicker, the opponents are better and you can run like a marathon and not take the ball.

"I am pretty sure you cannot take the ball if you make an endurance season or go 100 per cent in all the actions.

"We can talk about this a little bit but we are more concerned… 80 or 90 per cent of our talks are about keeping the ball. It is about how you do with the ball, not without the ball.

"All the times we run, we run to take the ball, to keep the ball as much as possible. I never consider putting the players on the pitch just to follow the opponent.

"We have to do it when the opponent is better but when they decide to be football players they do it to play with the ball.

"I want them to come back to the amateur feeling that they enjoy playing football because there is the ball."

Another Guardiola belief where the returning De Bruyne would appear to be a key disciple.

Pep Guardiola could understand West Brom's frustration after Manchester City benefited from a marginal offside call in their 5-0 win at The Hawthorns on Tuesday.

Ilkay Gundogan scored twice in a rampant City display, but it was the second goal from Joao Cancelo that really took the match away from relegation-battling West Brom.

Home defenders appeared to stop playing when official Sian Massey-Ellis prematurely raised her flag while City were still on the attack, believing Bernardo Silva was offside.

Guardiola's side continued and scored in stunning fashion through Cancelo, his first Premier League strike awarded following a VAR review which showed Silva just onside.

It was the second consecutive league game in which City had benefited from such controversy, with Silva's opener against Aston Villa given despite Rodri retreating from an offside position to tackle Tyrone Mings.

Reports this week suggested the rule that allowed that contentious goal to stand would be tweaked, but the Baggies – despite Massey-Ellis' error – could only blame themselves for the slack defending that allowed Cancelo to capitalise.

Guardiola offered his sympathy after the match but explained City always play to the whistle, which did not sound until the ball hit the net.

"I can understand [West Brom being unhappy]," the City manager told BT Sport. "Now with VAR, in these situations, you have to follow the actions until the end.

"You never know what is going to happen. The goal is allowed, disallowed? Nobody knows, so you have to continue.

"Always we speak with the players: until the end of the action, continue because we don't know what happens."

West Brom were outclassed regardless of that call and have now conceded 29 home league goals this season, the most in Europe's top five leagues.

Of those, 22 have come in their past five matches at The Hawthorns, with Aston Villa in December 1935 the last team to ship as many over a five-game home stretch in England's top flight.

This was despite City playing without key men Kevin De Bruyne – out for up to six weeks – and Sergio Aguero, who is recovering from coronavirus.

After Gundogan's brace and Cancelo's controversial strike secured a three-goal lead inside half an hour, Riyad Mahrez and Raheem Sterling added to City's advantage either side of half-time.

Gundogan has scored seven league goals since December 15, making this the best scoring season of his career, but Guardiola believes any one of his players can profit when City are in this form.

"If you play good and everybody's involved in attack and defence and everybody can arrive and everybody can be in the position, everybody is able to score," he said.

City have now won both of their league games without De Bruyne this season, scoring six and conceding none.

Gundogan added: "We all try our best – it doesn't matter who's playing.

"Obviously we had a few players over the last week in different conditions, struggling from COVID or struggling with injuries. It's like the players get more and more ready to play.

"Obviously Kevin is a big miss for us for the next few games, but we have players who will get more game time over the next couple of games.

"We need them all. We need everyone to be involved, because everyone gives us a different quality, a different boost. We need to keep going."

Ilkay Gundogan scored twice as Manchester City moved to the top of the Premier League for the first time this season with an outstanding 5-0 victory at West Brom.

Pep Guardiola's side stretched their winning run to 11 straight matches in all competitions on Tuesday, a sequence that has again seen City emerge at the forefront of the title picture after a rocky start to the campaign.

West Brom, then under Slaven Bilic, had been the last team to stop City winning when these teams met in mid-December, but Sam Allardyce's side were completely outclassed at The Hawthorns despite the absence of Kevin De Bruyne, the injured PFA Players' Player of the Year winner.

Joao Cancelo's first Premier League goal separated a first-half Gundogan double, which Riyad Mahrez and stand-in captain Raheem Sterling added to either side of the break.

West Brom's best spell came in the opening two minutes as City were penned in under an aerial barrage before countering through Phil Foden, whose low deflected shot was touched onto the post by Sam Johnstone.

Johnstone was helpless from City's next attempt, watching the ball nestle in the bottom-left corner after Gundogan controlled Cancelo's long pass and finished expertly.

The goalkeeper was then left awfully exposed for the second as West Brom defenders appeared to stop playing when Bernardo Silva was flagged offside. Cancelo had time and space to pick out the top-left corner with a gorgeous finish and the offside decision was overturned following a VAR review, meaning the goal stood.

Gundogan pinched the ball from Romaine Sawyers and slid a left-footed effort beyond Johnstone before the half-hour mark, and it was 4-0 heading into half-time as Mahrez moved inside from the right and lashed past the keeper.

The same pattern of play continued following the restart and, although Rodri's blast clipped the crossbar, City only had to wait until the 57th minute for Sterling to turn in Mahrez's first-time cross, finally then easing up slightly to spare their struggling hosts further punishment.


What does it mean? City on top in epic title tussle

In leapfrogging rivals Manchester United, who play Sheffield United on Wednesday but will grant City a game in hand, Guardiola's men became the ninth team to lead the table at the end of a day this season.

If City can maintain this high standard, though, the run-in might be a little more predictable. Even without De Bruyne, the four-time Premier League winners look back to their very best.

Ilkay in top form

City will surely miss De Bruyne as he faces up to six weeks out, but they have now won both of their league matches without their talisman this season, scoring six and conceding none.

His absence on Tuesday allowed those stars who have made up the supporting cast in recent weeks to come to the fore, including Gundogan.

The Germany midfielder now has seven league goals this term - the first of which came in the previous West Brom clash, kickstarting a superb spell - to make this his best ever scoring season.

Cancelo capitalises

Neither the officials nor the West Brom defenders came out of City's second goal well.

Sian Massey-Ellis correctly initially kept her flag down despite believing Silva was offside but then inexplicably indicated for the decision when City were still on the attack inside the area.

But the whistle did not blow until the ball hit the net and there was little excuse for West Brom's static defending, their porous back line now having conceded 29 home goals - more than any other team in Europe's 'top five' leagues - after the five here.

What's next?

City will hope to run up another handsome total at home to basement side Sheffield United on Saturday. West Brom have a huge clash with Fulham, where they will aim to end a five-game losing run at home.

Pep Guardiola did not see the point in sugar coating the news that Manchester City will be without Kevin De Bruyne for between four to six weeks with a hamstring injury.

"It is [a huge blow] but we have to move forward," he said after confirming the extent of the setback for the Belgium international.

"He has an important part of the season out and we have to find a solution."

Handily for Guardiola, having the likes of Bernardo Silva, Ilkay Gundogan and Phil Foden to choose from within his creative department means such solutions are - in theory at least - close at hand.

Here, we will examine how well equipped City are to face a run of fixtures including games against Liverpool, Tottenham, Arsenal, Borussia Monchengladbach and possibly Manchester United without their star midfielder.

Kevin the kingpin

Even when acknowledging City's enviable squad depth and Guardiola's career-long emphasis on the importance of the collective, De Bruyne's individual contribution throughout the Catalan's Etihad Stadium tenure is a heavy one.

Across 204 appearances since Guardiola took over at the start of the 2016-17 season, De Bruyne has supplied 88 assists - one every 2.3 matches.

Those come from 592 chances created, an average of one per 26.3 minutes.

David Silva is next with 365 opportunities created, with his 47 assists over the period in question second to Raheem Sterling (54).

Basically, daylight is second to De Bruyne in those and a host of other categories.

He has created 138 "big chances", according to Opta, with Sterling (73) and Silva (47) up next.

De Bruyne's 2,015 passes into the penalty area, including crosses, are more than double the amount attempted by any other player during the Guardiola era.

Keeping standards high

Although City finished a distant second to Liverpool in the Premier League last season and bowed out of the Champions League with a dispiriting quarter-final loss to Lyon, De Bruyne was named both PFA Players' Player of the Year and UEFA Midfielder of the Season.

He equalled the Premier League record of 20 assists in a season in 2019-20 and already has 10 this time around, with that figure rising to 15 in all competitions.

Once again, he leads the way for City in terms of chances created (73), big chances created (21) and passes into the penalty area (209).

Sterling (six assists), Riyad Mahrez (45 chances created and 106 passes into the box), are next best in those categories, again demonstrating the how central De Bruyne is to City as an attacking force.

Had De Bruyne been struck down when Guardiola's men were limping through the early weeks of the season, it might have cut off any title bid in its infancy.

However, the manager now has a number of other midfielders stepping up in impressive fashion.

Bernardo is back

Perhaps the most reassuring development for City this week came in the immediate aftermath of his injury.

The game was all square at 0-0 when he departed, Bernardo Silva dropped back to his team-mate's role on the right of the midfield three and promptly thrashed into the top corner to break the deadlock.

"He's back," Guardiola said defiantly of the Portugal playmaker on Friday.

"He struggled last season - maybe for the lack of minutes I gave him or maybe because he was not like him. Always he has been so important for me, for all of us."

Bernardo being "back" is a message understood loud and clear by regular City observers. It means the player who scooped the club's player of the year award when they won an unprecedented domestic treble in 2018-19; a player who has been difficult to spot for much of the subsequent 18 months.

Arguably the most impressive element of that trophy-laden campaign, when City pipped Liverpool to Premier League glory with 98 points to their rivals' 97, is they were without De Bruyne for large chunks of it.

The former Wolfsburg man twice sustained knee ligament damage before a calf strain kept him out for a key stretch of the run-in.

Bernardo's versatility is what makes him a Guardiola favourite, but playing for much of the season in De Bruyne's midfield berth, he registered 13 goals and as many assists in all competitions - a career best return for the ex-Monaco favourite.

The goal against Aston Villa was the 26-year-old's first in the Premier League this year and another drought would be deeply unhelpful as De Bruyne looks on, even though midfield goals have been flying in from elsewhere.

Gundogan and Foden in the goals

Gundogan rounded off the scoring from the penalty spot in midweek and will probably retain duties from 12 yards with De Bruyne out, having scored four out of five at City.

The Germany international is on a hot streak in front of goal since a torpid 0-0 draw at Manchester United in December persuaded Guardiola to tweak his formation and allow Gundogan more attacking license from central midfield.

Five in his past seven Premier League games is part of an all-competitions tally of seven - already the best single-season return of the 30-year-old's career.

Goalscoring is one area where De Bruyne has been under par this year. Two of his three Premier League goals are penalties, and his solitary strike from open play is the yield from 57 shots with an expected goals (xG) value of 5.1.

Gundogan (four open play Premier League goals, xG 2.7) is out-performing his xG almost as impressively as Foden (four open play Premier League goals, xG 2.5).

The England playmaker is level on eight with Raheem Sterling as City's top scorer in all competitions this season and has excelled in a left-wing role over recent weeks.

Like Bernardo, Foden's preference would probably be to operate in De Bruyne's favourite position but he has repaid both the faith of Guardiola and the clamour from City fans for him to start Premier League games more regularly.

City's overall statistics in the eight top-flight matches where Foden has made the XI this season are similar to the 10 when he did not, with a 62.5 per cent win ratio set against 60 per cent falling slightly in the hometown hero's favour.

However, they are considerably more active in front of goal when Foden starts, averaging 19.3 shots per game as opposed to 13.7.

The man himself has plenty to do with such an upturn if his five shots and six chances created against Villa are anything to go by - his most shot involvements in a single Premier League game.

Replacing De Bruyne's similarly weighty numbers in other areas is a task almost certainly beyond any individual at City but, with Bernardo, Gundogan and Foden among the collective, Guardiola has ample talent to keep his team's title challenge on track.

Next month's trip to Liverpool is a no-go for Kevin De Bruyne, while March's crunch derby with Manchester United could be a return date for Manchester City's star midfielder.

That is the predicament facing Pep Guardiola after he confirmed the Belgium international will be out for four to six weeks due to a hamstring injury sustained during the 2-0 midweek win over Aston Villa.

De Bruyne, the reigning PFA Players' Player of the Year, has been in typically sparkling form for City this term, scoring three times and providing 10 assists in the Premier League.

Guardiola's men are two points shy of league leaders United with a game in hand and into the last-16 of the Champions League.

Here, we look at the key games within a battle on all fronts where the EFL Cup finalists will be missing their talisman.

Cheltenham Town (A) - January 23

De Bruyne would probably have been rested for the weekend clash with League Two Cheltenham Town in any case, although the fifth round on February 10 also looks to be out of the question if City progress. In 16 appearances in the FA Cup, he has five goals and as many assists - claiming one of each in the 6-0 demolition of Watford in the 2019 final

West Brom (A) - January 26

City are back in Premier League action against Sam Allardyce's relegation-threatened Baggies next week. De Bruyne has two goals and three assists against the Baggies in the competition but could not manage a goal involvement as Ilkay Gundogan and Raheem Sterling failed to convert his late crosses during December's 1-1 draw at the Etihad Stadium. City have won nine games in a row across all competitions since that setback.

Sheff Utd (H) - January 30

Another relegation candidate follows, with bottom club Sheffield United facing a daunting trip to Manchester. De Bruyne created Sergio Aguero's opener before completing the scoring for a 2-0 win in this fixture last season.

Burnley (A) - February 3

Perhaps surprisingly, giving City's succession of recent 5-0 wins over Burnley, De Bruyne has never scored against Sean Dyche's men in the Premier League. He does have three assists, including the decisive passes for Riyad Mahrez and Benjamin Mendy to net during the most recent mauling last November.

Liverpool (A) - February 7

De Bruyne scored from the penalty spot as City beat the recently crowned champions 4-0 last July, although he missed uncharacteristically from 12 yards in this season's 1-1 draw at the Etihad Stadium. Even though none of his five Premier League assists against Liverpool have come at Anfield, he will be a huge miss when City chase a first win on the red side of Stanley Park since 2003.

Tottenham (H) - February 13

De Bruyne scored in each of his first three Premier League appearances against Spurs and set up both City goals as the sides shared a thrilling 2-2 draw at the Etihad last season. Jose Mourinho's men were the last team to inflict a defeat upon City, 17 games ago.

Arsenal (A) - February 21

No Premier League team has conceded more goals to De Bruyne than Arsenal's five. City's number 17 scored twice and dazzled throughout in a 3-0 win at Emirates Stadium last term.

Borussia Monchengladbach (A) - February 24

UEFA named De Bruyne their Midfielder of the Season following his performances on City's run to the quarter-finals in 2019-20. Despite his club's patchy record in Europe's top competition, the 29-year-old has seven goals and 15 assists in 37 Champions League appearances for the English side.

West Ham (H) - February 27

Rodri converted De Bruyne's corner before the man himself rounded off a 2-0 win over West Ham when the teams met on February 19 last year. It was the last time fans were allowed into the Etihad Stadium.

Manchester United (H) - March 6

This could be the biggest Manchester derby for almost a decade given the state of play at the top of the table and must surely be the comeback target for De Bruyne. He opened the scoring in a 2-1 Premier League win at Old Trafford in 2016, a strike that remains his only goal involvement in seven league games against United.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mutual respect

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

King creators

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Goals, guile and grubby work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

STONES' GAME – BY THE NUMBERS

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

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

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

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

DE BRUYNE AND GUNDOGAN LIGHT UP

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, PEP

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DE BRUYNE EYES THREE FIGURES

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

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

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

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

Pep Guardiola dedicated Manchester City's 2-0 EFL Cup semi-final win over Manchester United to club great Colin Bell.

Former City and England midfielder Bell died on Tuesday after a short illness, aged 74.

City's players wore retro shirts bearing Bell's number eight before kick-off at Old Trafford, where a minute's silence was observed.

When the action got underway, an absorbing contest at odds with a dour 0-0 draw between the sides in the Premier League last month ensued, with City prevailing thanks to second-half goals from John Stones and Fernandinho.

"It's for him and, of course, for his family," Guardiola told Sky Sports in a post-match interview which he conducted wearing a t-shirt featuring Bell's likeness.

"This person helped to build something special for this club that doesn't have many, many trophies in the cabinet. But that is not important.

"What is important is the legacy that players provide from the past and some of these players in the future. That is the club we have now.

"It is an incredible victory for us to beat United away and be in another final.

"But especially today, it is for him. Absolutely."

City might be considered to have "many, many" EFL Cups if they are able to claim a fourth in a row against Tottenham in April's final.

Guardiola praised his players for a notable upturn in form of late after they followed up Sunday's swashbuckling 3-1 win over Chelsea in impressive fashion, despite Scott Carson and Cole Palmer taking the number of positive COVID-19 tests among his squad to eight since Christmas Day.

"You are frustrated when you play bad. When the team don't run, don't help, don't celebrate every defensive action," he said, rejecting the suggestion he was unhappy after a goalless first half.

"The team is ready. That is why we came here with an outstanding performance.

"We suffered a little bit in the second half because we were tired after the game at Stamford Bridge. They had two more days off to rest but when a team has the mentality to do it we achieve something incredible.

"I know the Carabao Cup is not the Champions League but four times in a row reaching the final is incredible. I am so impressed by the quality of this team."

As Manchester City's players huddled around the centre circle in number eight shirts to pay a poignant pre-match tribute to Colin Bell, it occurred a Pep Guardiola team might never have been so fittingly dressed.

England international Bell, widely revered as the finest player in City's history, passed away after a short illness on the eve Wednesday's 2-0 Manchester derby win the semi-final of the EFL Cup.

Bell, according to the loud and often repeated refrain of the Kippax Stand at City's old Maine Road home, was the greatest inside forward that the world had ever seen.

A technically gifted all-round midfielder, somehow simultaneously graceful and powerful, Bell thrived in those dangerous pockets between winger and centre-forward to cause maximum damage in Joe Mercer and Malcolm Allison's celebrated City teams of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

The inside forward had long gone out of fashion before Pep Guardiola ushered in his era of "free eights". From Xavi and Iniesta, through Thiago Alcantara and Toni Kroos to David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne, City's former Barcelona and Bayern Munich boss delights in filling his side with such players.

During Sunday's swaggering 3-1 win over Chelsea, De Bruyne was joined in the line-up by Phil Foden, Ilkay Gundogan and Bernardo Silva. That quartet of playmakers probably would have resumed duties together at Old Trafford had Silva not been suspended.

After paying tribute to City's eternal eight, Guardiola's team of number eights got to work. Where the league fixture on this ground a month ago was as stodgy as the pitches Bell graced in his heyday, the pop and fizz to the early passing was much more in "Nijinsky's" image.

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