Having been scrapped last year due to the disruption caused by the pandemic, the Ballon d'Or returns in 2021.

With Euro 2020 and the Copa America rescheduled for this year, the stars of Europe and South America have the chance to use those tournaments as a springboard towards claiming the game's top individual prize.

Following club seasons either laden with trophies or padded with statistical achievements – or, in some cases, a bit of both – a few elite-level performances could make the difference in the race to win France Football's famous award.

Stats Perform has chosen a shortlist of 14 players who could make themselves Ballon d'Or favourites should they sparkle over the next month...

 

Karim Benzema

Remarkably, Karim Benzema failed to win a trophy with Real Madrid despite registering 30 goals and nine assists in 46 games in all competitions.

That form did bring his international exile to an end, though, and if he keeps it up for France over the coming month, a Ballon d'Or challenge is not out of the question.

Kevin De Bruyne

A second successive PFA Players' Player of the Year award for Kevin De Bruyne came after another standout season for Manchester City in which he won the Premier League and EFL Cup.

Had Pep Guardiola's men finally got their hands on the Champions League trophy, the Ballon d'Or might be De Bruyne's already. Leading Belgium to Euros glory would probably do the job.

Ruben Dias

The other prime candidate for City's player of the season, Ruben Dias was a colossal performer at the heart of their defence after joining from Benfica, winning the Premier League's Player of the Season award.

Defenders' difficulties winning big individual prizes are well documented, and the last to lift the Ballon d'Or – Fabio Cannavaro in 2006 – did so after leading Italy to the World Cup.

Bruno Fernandes

Bruno Fernandes was heartbroken to lose the Europa League final on penalties as his wait for a trophy with Manchester United goes on.

However, a combined 46 direct goal involvements – the most of any Premier League player – means individual glory could be on the cards should Fernandes and Portugal shine.

Phil Foden

The PFA Young Player of the Year winner, Phil Foden blossomed in 2020-21 from prodigious talent to integral player for both City and England.

His Ballon d'Or chances are probably slimmer than those of a couple of his City team-mates, but long-awaited success for the Three Lions could put him right in the mix.

Harry Kane

Another star performer in 2020-21 to end the season empty-handed, Harry Kane finished top for goals (23) and assists (14) in the Premier League despite Tottenham finishing seventh.

Winner of the Golden Boot at the last World Cup, Kane is England's undisputed star going into Euro 2020 and has every chance of topping the scoring charts again.

N'Golo Kante

Arguably the popular choice for the award, N'Golo Kante won the Champions League with Chelsea after being named man of the match in both legs of the semi-final and the final against City.

France are most observers' favourites to win the Euros and, if they do, Kante will surely be facing short odds to win the ultimate individual trophy – even if it's one in which he has little interest.

Robert Lewandowski

It's widely accepted that, had the award been handed out last year, it would have gone to Robert Lewandowksi, the man whose 55 goals in 47 games delivered Bayern the treble.

How do you follow that? Well, he scored 41 times in the Bundesliga alone in 2020-21, breaking Gerd Muller's 49-year-old single-season record. Winning the Euros with Poland might be a stretch, but finishing as top goalscorer is certainly achievable.

Romelu Lukaku

The best player in Serie A as Inter ended an 11-year wait to win the title, Romelu Lukaku enjoyed the best season of his career, with 41 direct goal involvements in 44 appearances.

With eight goals in his past nine games for Belgium, the 28-year-old could well be the man to fire Roberto Martinez's side to glory, which would make him very hard to overlook.

Kylian Mbappe

Paris Saint-Germain lost their Ligue 1 title to Lille and could not reach back-to-back Champions League finals, which seems incredible given Kylian Mbappe managed 42 goals and 11 assists in just 47 appearances.

Departing Bayern Munich boss Hansi Flick this year said there was no question Mbappe would win the Ballon d'Or one day. The Euros could be his ticket to glory in 2021.

Lionel Messi

The winner of the previous award in 2019 – the sixth of his astonishing career – Lionel Messi amazingly plundered 28 goals and had nine assists for Barcelona from January 1 onwards.

It wasn't enough to win Barca the LaLiga title, but it does put him right in the mix. If he can finally win the Copa America with Argentina, Ballon d'Or number seven may well follow.

Neymar

Even Neymar would admit he has only an outside chance of winning this year's Ballon d'Or, his 17 goals and eight assists in 2020-21 a modest return for the world's most expensive footballer.

He typically produces in a Brazil shirt, though, and winning the Copa America would propel him right back into the mix for the individual prize he supposedly craves above all others.

Cristiano Ronaldo

Juventus may have lost their grip on Serie A, but Cristiano Ronaldo still finished as top goalscorer (with 29), and they won the Supercoppa Italiana and Coppa Italia.

Ronaldo won his fourth of five Ballons d'Or after Portugal triumphed at Euro 2016, and there's little doubt he would be vying for a sixth if they defend that trophy.

Luis Suarez

Discarded by Barcelona for being past his usefulness, Luis Suarez responded with 21 goals in 32 games to propel Atletico Madrid to a first league title since 2013-14.

Should Uruguay upset the odds at the Copa America, you can bet Suarez will be in the running for the Ballon d'Or. Quite what Barca fans would make of that is hard to say.

Kevin De Bruyne has retained the men's PFA Players' Player of the Year award, matching the achievement of Cristiano Ronaldo and Thierry Henry.

Belgium star De Bruyne saw off competition from Manchester United's Bruno Fernandes, Tottenham's Harry Kane and three of his Manchester City team-mates – Ilkay Gundogan, Ruben Dias and Phil Foden, who scooped the Young Player of the Year accolade.

Foden had been nominated for the young player prize alongside fellow England internationals Declan Rice, Mason Mount, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Bukayo Saka and Mason Greenwood.

De Bruyne's win in voting for the Professional Footballers' Association main prize sees him match Ronaldo and Henry, greats from United and Arsenal who are the only previous players to have won the award in back-to-back seasons.

"The fact that the players chose me for this award means that I've done really well. You want to win all the trophies with the team, and this is probably the most important one as an individual trophy in the league," De Bruyne said.

"To be voted for by your competitors... that means a lot.

"When you have these things, you can show your kids and say, 'Look! This is what Daddy did when he was younger.'"

Only three Premier League players created more chances in the competition in 2020-21 than De Bruyne (80) – Fernandes (95), Mount (87) and Jack Grealish (81) – though all of them made more appearances than the 29-year-old.

De Bruyne crafted 19 big chances – defined by Opta as an opportunity from which a player would reasonably be expected to score – with only Fernandes (20) managing a higher total.

The City playmaker scored six goals and created a further 12 in the Premier League. In that regard, he was below his expected goals estimation (9.26), but some way above his expected assists of 6.21. Ten of his assists came from passes in open play, with two from set-pieces.

On average, De Bruyne created 3.6 chances per 90 minutes, more than any of those who made the PFA's final list.

 

Foden, meanwhile, made fewer league appearances than any of his competitors for the Young Player of the Year award, and also tallied the fewest minutes (1,613).

However, his nine goals put him two ahead of the haul that Greenwood – his nearest challenger in that regard – managed, with his five assists second only to Alexander-Arnold.

Indeed, when calculated per 90 minutes, Foden averaged 0.5 goals and 0.28 assists, ranking him top among those in the frame for the award, while he also attempted more dribbles (4.18) with the highest success rate (2.83).

Another City player to scoop an award was Lauren Hemp, who took the women's Young Player of the Year prize.

Chelsea and England forward Fran Kirby won the women's Players' Player of the Year award after a prolific campaign for Emma Hayes' side in the WSL and Women's Champions League.

Saturday had seen more awards sent City's way, with Pep Guardiola named the Premier League's Manager of the Season winner, while Ruben Dias took the league's own Player of the Season prize.

Pep Guardiola has suggested Raheem Sterling needs to rediscover his confidence if he is to usurp Phil Foden and Riyad Mahrez from Manchester City's starting XI.

Sterling has been an important performer throughout the Guardiola era at the Etihad Stadium but has started just two of City's past eight games across all competitions.

He was in the XI for all three of England's World Cup qualifiers during the recent international break, scoring in a 5-0 win against San Marino.

Sterling started City's surprise Premier League defeat to Leeds United yet was back on the bench for Wednesday's Champions League quarter-final second leg against Borussia Dortmund, during which both Mahrez and Foden scored to seal a place in the last four.

"He's maybe the second or third player with the most minutes this season," the City boss told a media conference.

"The trust with Raheem is intact. He's only played less because Phil and Riyad are at the top level, scoring goals and being so decisive in the final third.

"The confidence, he has to have it. He has it from all of us, he has to have it because the quality is there. I cannot give the players confidence, he can have it for himself.

"Having confidence from me, for being selected, is completely the opposite. What we have done in these incredible years, with this amount of titles and records that went on, Raheem has been key.

"He was a key player and is a key player. But at this moment Phil is playing really good and Riyad is playing really good. That's the only reason. They know it. They know it and everybody plays a lot of minutes this season.

"Every day, people want to take what happened in the past and future. I could not care less. I don't care. I care about the training sessions, how you were, how you behave, about the body language, your mood, and then tomorrow, semi-final day, that's when you have to talk.

"We have excellent human beings, the relationship in the locker room in bad moments this season was fantastic and in good moments it's fantastic."

Meanwhile, Guardiola confirmed Zack Steffen will start against Chelsea ahead of first-choice goalkeeper Ederson.

The United States international has started all four of City's games in the FA Cup this season and Guardiola acknowledged it would not be fair on the 26-year-old to drop him for the clash with Thomas Tuchel's side.

"He's played really well in the FA Cup," Guardiola explained. "He's an international goalkeeper and when he has played he has played at a good level. He's training well, he deserves it. I am more than delighted to give him this opportunity."

Pep Guardiola shrugged off the suggestion Phil Foden's sensational form proves he was right to slowly ease the youngster into first-team action, insisting football is only about the present.

Manchester City prodigy Foden made his Premier League debut in 2017-18, playing five times in total. While his talent was obvious, Guardiola was cautious with his development, opting to drop the attacker in and out of games, sometimes causing ire in the media.

A total of 13 league appearances followed in 2018-19 before Foden truly began to establish himself last season, making 37 appearances across all competitions.

Guardiola's cautious approach has seemingly paid off, with Foden one of City's most impressive players this campaign.

The 20-year-old has played 41 times in total, including 29 starts. He is joint-second – alongside Gabriel Jesus and Raheem Sterling – in City's scorers' list with 13 goals, behind Ilkay Gundogan (16); Foden's latest strike coming against Borussia Dortmund on Wednesday.

His tally of nine assists is bettered only by Kevin De Bruyne (16), with the Belgian (99) and Riyad Mahrez (75) the two City players to have created more chances than Foden (65).

But asked if he can take credit for Foden's development, Guardiola insisted the England international must continue to prove himself in every game.

"It's not about what we believed in the past, it's about what they show on the grass," Guardiola told a news conference ahead of City's FA Cup semi-final against Chelsea on Saturday.

"So, footballers have to show every single day. The journalists will talk a lot about the past, or the future. In football it's about the present.

"In the present it doesn't matter what we have done, it's what we do today. Everybody is involved, talking and talking. The players have to talk on the grass.

"It's the only way they can protect their position and win in the present and in the future. It's as simple as that.

"Phil in that case, everything we get right now is on the grass, not in any other situations. He's going to continue being there depending on his performance, not on what he has done so far at a young age. You have to every game win something to stay in the position and playing every day."

While Foden is thriving, one player whose form has been called into question in some quarters is Sterling, who only came on for a brief cameo towards the end against Dortmund.

Guardiola, however, disregarded the suggestion it had to be a choice between Foden or Sterling for a spot on the left.

"If you know a bit the trajectory of this team selection, then the answer is obvious," said Guardiola, who also confirmed Sergio Aguero will not be fit to feature at Wembley.

"Of course they can play together, they have played many times together. Phil can play in five positions, Sterling in three positions. Everyone can play in a few positions, so it depends on them."

Sterling has created fewer opportunities than Foden this season (45), though he has the same amount of assists, having crafted the same number of Opta-defined "big chances" (12) and both are over-performing their expected assists to a similar degree.

 

Foden has a slightly better shot conversion rate – 16.1 per cent compared to 15.7 – though has attempted two fewer (81 compared to 83) attempts than the former Liverpool winger.

Mason Mount is relishing the battle for places in the England team, particularly with Jack Grealish and Phil Foden in the long term. 

England manager Gareth Southgate has something of an embarrassment of riches in the attacking positions at the moment, with a host of players thriving at club level. 

Mount has been a key man for Chelsea this term, playing more minutes (2,231) than any of his team-mates, while his 69 chances created is 41 more than anyone else. 

He has been a creative pillar for the Blues, as further evidenced by his 168 passes into the box being by far the most among Chelsea players, while the fact he quickly won his place back after being left out for Thomas Tuchel's first game in charge speaks to his impressive mentality. 

That attitude will surely stand him in good stead not only at club level but also for England, whose creative options seem to be improving with each international window.

 

The advantage that Mount believes he has, however, is his versatility. 

"I am always trying to improve," he told reporters ahead of England's opening 2022 World Cup qualifier against San Marino on Thursday. "I feel like I am versatile and can play in a deeper role and obviously in a more forward role. I'm always learning. I'm still young and I'm still learning. 

"In terms of the formation, we are versatile as a team. In the modern game, you have to be ready to change if the other team are tactically different to what you have prepared for. 

"We are ready for that, definitely. I feel like I can play in any position and I just want to understand, more and more, different positions." 

Elaborating on England's strength in depth, Mount added: "There are so many good players in this team. 

"I've seen Jack and Phil do brilliant things. It motivates me to want to do the same. We all have ambitions to win major trophies, at England and at club level we're all competing to want to do that." 

Of course, Mount's comments help pose the question: can he line up alongside Grealish and Foden in the same team? 

Well, they have done once already – against Iceland in November 2020, as all three started and England won 4-0. 

Mount, occupying a deeper role, did catch the eye as he got the Three Lions' second goal, though Foden and Grealish were arguably more impressive. 

 

Playing from the left, Grealish – whose 75 key passes in the Premier League this season is bettered by only Bruno Fernandes – was lively and created three chances, while also winning 81.8 per cent of his 11 duels. 

Of those involved in three duels or more, only Harry Maguire (15, 86.7 per cent) produced a stronger display, highlighting Grealish's competitive streak in the final third. 

Foden's performance had a similar relentlessness to it, his record in duels identical to the numbers for Grealish, though he was more decisive in attack when on the ball. 

The Manchester City talent scored twice, got an assist and laid on three chances, behind only Harry Kane on four. 

As such, Mount's display could be considered a little less impactful for England going forward. Sure, his 87.8 per cent pass completion rate in the opposing half was good, but none were considered key passes. 

It suggests that, while certainly possible to get all three into the line-up, if Southgate is to persist with his 3-4-3 formation, Mount will be the one shoe-horned into the team. 

With that in mind, it seems likely Mount's greatest strength – his creativity – could become stifled. 

However, with Grealish absent through injury, Mount has another opportunity to stake his claim as a key player in this team – succeeding in that respect will surely be reflected by an elevated status, with England's central midfield often crying out for more creativity in recent years. 

For the first time since 2005, neither Lionel Messi nor Cristiano Ronaldo will be involved in the Champions League quarter-finals.  

While Barcelona's exit to last season's runners-up Paris Saint-Germain was perhaps not too much of a surprise, few saw Juventus coming out on the wrong end of an upset against Porto in the last 16.  

So, could we be witnessing a changing of the guard in the competition? Is it a case of out with the old, in with the new? 

While Messi and Ronaldo have dominated in Europe through the years, a collection of some of the most promising talents in the world game have the chance to take centre stage now.

 

Erling Haaland (Borussia Dortmund)

Even by his own prolific standards, Haaland has been in sensational scoring form in the tournament so far.

His 10 goals in six games includes scoring a brace in each leg of the last-16 tie with Sevilla, helping Borussia Dortmund progress to the quarters.  

The Norwegian striker managed the same number in a Champions League campaign last season that saw him represent both BVB and Salzburg. Forget just breaking the record as the fastest to 20 goals, he has shattered it. Harry Kane was previously the quickest to reach that number, doing so in 24 games – Haaland managed it in just 14. 

His big chance conversion rate this season sits at a clinical 81.9 per cent, while he has also demonstrated his all-round impact by creating eight chances for his BVB colleagues.  

Next in his sights is Manchester City, a team with family ties as his father, Alf-Inge, played for the English club in the early 2000s. Haaland has been linked with them too, along with plenty of other clubs, and Pep Guardiola has been suitably impressed by a player who does not turn 21 until July.  

"The numbers speak for themselves, of course he is one of the best strikers in the world right now at his age," said Guardiola, who will be well aware that Haaland has the potential to ruin City's hopes of European glory. 

 

Kylian Mbappe (Paris Saint-Germain)

Mbappe has six goals to his name in European outings in 2020-21, the same tally team-mate Neymar has managed for a PSG squad aiming to go one better than last year.

The France international hit a hat-trick in a 4-1 thrashing of Barcelona at Camp Nou, joining Faustino Asprilla and Andriy Shevchenko as the only players to record a Champions League treble against the Spanish heavyweights.  

He was also on target when scoring a penalty in the drawn second leg, in the process becoming the youngest player to reach 25 goals in the competition, aged 22 years and 80 days. Messi was on the same pitch at the time his record was broken. 

Mbappe has also demonstrated how he can provide for others, too. No forward from any of the teams still in contention can top his three assists, while only Karim Benzema (15) has bettered his total of 14 chances created. 

PSG will be hoping the forward can continue his fine form when they take on Bayern Munich in a repeat of last year's final.

Phil Foden (Manchester City)

After three starts in the Champions League last season, Foden has risen from the periphery to become a prominent figure for Guardiola.  

Only goalkeeper Ederson has played more minutes in the campaign so far for City than the versatile 20-year-old, who has contributed a goal and two assists to help ensure smooth progress to the last eight.  

Foden has created the most chances for City during his appearances, his tally of 12 putting him just ahead of Kevin De Bruyne (11), while he has also been successful with 64.7 per cent of his attempted dribbles.  

The playmaker is set to feature in the Champions League knockout stage for a fourth season before turning 21 – a feat only previously achieved by Cesc Fabregas (2004-05 to 2007-08) and Theo Walcott (2006-07 to 2009-10).  

In the Premier League, Foden's 20 goal involvements (11 goals, nine assists) is comfortably the most by anyone aged 21 or under, showing just why he is no longer one to watch for the future but a player for the present, both for club and country.

Alphonso Davies (Bayern Munich)

It is not often a full-back catches the eye to the level that Davies managed during Bayern's triumphant Champions League run in 2019-20.  

The most eye-catching moment of all surely came in his side's 8-2 rout of Barcelona in a quarter-final result that sent shock waves across European football, as he initially beat two opposing players before breezing beyond poor Nelson Semedo to set up a goal for Joshua Kimmich, one of his three assists in the competition.  

Having arrived at the Bundesliga club as a left winger, the conversion to defence was made as quickly as he sprints up and down his flank (he clocked a top speed of 36.51 kilometres per hour in a Bundesliga game against Werder Bremen last year, the quickest speed recorded since such data began to be collected).  

His participation in the group stage this season was limited by an ankle injury, with the 4-1 first-leg victory over Lazio in the last 16 just his second start.  

However, the Canada international had no problems upon his return, having 101 touches (second only to team-mate David Alaba) while topping the list for Bayern in terms of tackles (four) and number of times possession was gained from the opposition (seven).

Wayne Rooney believes Phil Foden and Jack Grealish are too good to be left out of the England starting XI for Euro 2020.

Manchester City youngster Foden starred with a goal and an assist in the 4-1 away win at Premier League champions Liverpool last week.

He is gaining momentum after being handed more opportunities by manager Pep Guardiola.

Grealish, meanwhile, has thrived for Aston Villa this season, establishing himself as one of the Premier League's leading players with six top-flight goals and 10 assists.

Rooney is England's record goalscorer and thinks the form of the two attacking midfielders has become impossible to ignore ahead of the tournament.

"They have to be in the squad and arguably have to play because they are that good," the Derby County boss said about Foden and Grealish.

"Phil Foden has been one of the best players in the league this season, I think Guardiola has managed him really well.

"For Phil, it's about keeping doing what he's doing. He's one of the best players in the league this season.

"Foden is performing excellently — scoring, assisting — and hopefully he can carry that form on with England. He is entertaining to watch. 

"When my lad [Kai] used to go into City, I used to see Phil there.

"I spoke to him a couple of times and I could see he's a very level-headed lad. He was there a lot of the time, but it was just general chat, not me giving him advice.

"There are a few players — not just him. I think Jack Grealish brings something different for the national team."

Foden made his England debut away to Iceland in September but was promptly removed from the squad along with Mason Greenwood for breaking coronavirus protocols.

He responded by scoring a double - his first international goals - in the home match against Iceland in November.

Grealish, meanwhile, has five England caps and manager Gareth Southgate has spoken about the dilemma he faces over whether to play him or Chelsea's Mason Mount.

Phil Foden must be "calm" and "humble" as the plaudits flow his way, according to Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola.

Foden completed the scoring in Sunday's 4-1 win over Premier League champions Liverpool at Anfield, having also had a hand in each of Ilkay Gundogan's two second-half goals.

The 20-year-old attacking midfielder has 10 goals for City in all competitions this season and has played an integral part in them establishing a five-point lead at the top of the table.

However, Guardiola was critical of Foden's performance in the false nine role before half-time on Merseyside and, speaking ahead of Wednesday's FA Cup trip to Swansea City, said he felt Raheem Sterling was City's standout weekend performer.

"I said to [Foden], 'Don't read much, don't listen much, keep your feet on the grass and keep going'," Guardiola said, before waxing lyrical about Sterling after the England star won a penalty and scored a close-range header against his former club.

"Nobody talks much about Raheem and, at Anfield, Raheem made his best game of the last two months. By far.

"He was key in the first goal, for the penalty in the first half. Every action he made was decisive in the final third.

"Of course Phil was so important in the goals, especially in the fantastic last one.

"But Raheem was fundamental for us and hopefully, because he was a little bit not in the best form in the last month, he can continue to maintain the level he played at Anfield."

Foden will be reunited with Steve Cooper on Wednesday when Guardiola's City chase an English record - a 15th consecutive win for a top flight team.

The Swansea boss coached England to success in the 2017 U-17 World Cup, where the young Mancunian was named player of the tournament.

From that point, Guardiola has faced repeated calls to grant the playmaker more minutes at City.

A strand of post-match analysis at the weekend argued the former Barcelona boss had nurtured his latest star perfectly, but Guardiola does not necessarily view it that way and also stated Foden should not consider himself an automatic selection.

"I didn’t plan to handle the way we did it with Phil," Guardiola said. "Sometimes he played and he didn’t deserve to play.

"Normally we want to increase and talk a lot, a lot, a lot about Phil but after that we'll punish him, you know? For one mistake in this private life, we know exactly what happened [Foden was sent home from England duty last September for breaking coronavirus protocols].

"Now it's just [about being] calm. I know Phil is ready to play, His physical condition is extraordinary.

"I will handle it the same way and have handled it. When I believe he can help us he is going to play; when I believe another one deserves to play he is not going to play."

Indeed, with Foden the toast of the present moment in English football, Guardiola challenged him to turn a rich vein of form into the sort of longevity that separates the best from the rest.

"He has to be calm and understand tough periods will come. It depends on him being humble and his love for the game," Guardiola added of a player who recently brought up 100 senior appearances for City.

"We’ll see if he can handle it. Now the people expect him every game to do exceptional things, this is the most important thing.

"It's difficult to play 100 games but the important thing is to do 100 more and 100 more at this level. This is the toughest.

"This is why the best players did not do one action at Anfield; they play five years in a row, being consistent, not injured. Playing, playing, playing.

"This is the next target for Phil, maintain there as high as possible, as much and as long as possible.

"It depends absolutely on him. Hopefully he can do it."

Pep Guardiola hopes Phil Foden understands there is plenty of room for improvement but said it is a joy to have the boyhood Manchester City fan starring for his team.  

Foden scored a stunner and set up another goal as Premier League leaders City romped to a 4-1 victory over reigning champions Liverpool at Anfield on Sunday. 

Playing in a central role up front, Foden struggled to get into the game in the first half but thrived in the second after Guardiola had altered City's shape. 

His exquisite strike rounded off a remarkable 10-minute spell late in the second half in which the match went from 1-1 to 4-1. 

Two blunders from Alisson had gifted City their second and third goals – Ilkay Gundogan tucking in from Foden's cut back before Raheem Sterling headed home his 100th goal under Guardiola from Bernardo Silva's deft lob. 

Foden lashed in a fourth from a tight angle to wrap things up and condemn Liverpool to a third straight Anfield defeat for the first time since 1963.

Asked about the Englishman's performance, Guardiola told Sky Sports: "He's a guy who keeps the ball really well, he's really aggressive.

"But still he is so young, he doesn't understand in some positions what he has to do, so in the first half he was not in the right positions.

"We worked but he is a little bit distracted sometimes in these positions. Playing wide is more easy for him but he will learn.

"After that, the assist for the second goal and then scoring the fourth goal, we know what a huge talent he is, but he's still young and we are still hopeful that he can understand that he can improve, because in the first half he was not in the position that we needed and that's why we suffered in some moments to get the control."

Guardiola had never before tasted victory at Anfield, City's previous five visits during his tenure having returned four defeats and just one draw.

And, while the Spaniard acknowledged the difference a lack of supporters makes, he was still impressed by his players' ability to overcome in-game setbacks.

He added: "What's important is the three points. Of course I'm so proud of the guys. Anfield with people and without is completely different. It's good, especially when we miss the penalty, concede the goal.

"We react with huge personality. Raheem Sterling, phenomenal. The commitment from everyone. Three points, grateful, happy, but tomorrow feet on the grass and thinking Swansea.

"We are not one player. Gundogan started to be one of the top scorers, we have to do it as a team. We have an incredible captain. In this period, to do wins in a row is so difficult."

Thanks to their win, City sit 10 points clear of champions Liverpool and five  ahead of second-placed neighbours Manchester United at the summit of the Premier League – and with a game in hand on both. 

But Guardiola is not getting carried away as he looks ahead to a testing February fixture schedule. 

He continued: "I said before, I'm not a guy who predicts the future. In February, five points is nothing. Swansea, Tottenham, Everton, Arsenal, many tough games. Be calm and keep going. 

"In England you think February will be softer but the schedule is even tougher. One game at a time. The next one is Swansea."

Liverpool have received a triple fitness boost for their clash with Manchester City as Sadio Mane, Alisson Becker and Fabinho return from injury to start.

Fabinho is back following a three-game absence necessitated by a muscle issue, while Mane returns after a similar problem forced him to miss the Reds' last two fixtures.

Alisson, meanwhile, is back in goal after illness kept him out of the midweek defeat to Brighton and Hove Albion at Anfield.

That trio's availability accounts for three of the hosts' four changes, with 20-year-old midfielder Curtis Jones replacing the experienced James Milner the other.

Manchester City, meanwhile, make two changes to the starting XI that beat Burnley in midweek, with Pep Guardiola opting against naming a recognised striker as Gabriel Jesus drops out for Phil Foden.

At the back, Aymeric Laporte makes way, with Oleksandr Zinchenko his replacement.

 

Pep Guardiola praised the personality Phil Foden gave to Manchester City as they came from behind to beat Cheltenham Town 3-1 in the FA Cup, but insisted he does not have to fill Kevin De Bruyne's shoes.

Foden was instrumental as City avoided a huge shock in the fourth round on Saturday, which looked on the cards when Alfie May prodded fourth-tier Cheltenham ahead.

But the England international equalised by turning home at the far post nine minutes from time before Gabriel Jesus and Ferran Torres sealed progression to the fifth round.

City could have been out of sight by the time May put Cheltenham in front, with Guardiola's men wasteful in front of goal.

Foden played five key passes, with the fact none resulted in an assist indicative of the poor finishing displayed by City.

With De Bruyne out for up to six weeks with a hamstring injury, Guardiola was asked in his post-match media conference if Foden can help fill the void.

"Phil has to be Phil, Phil does not have to be Kevin De Bruyne," he replied. 

"Phil has to do what he is doing in terms of the bad moments when we were losing, the personality that he gave to the game.

"Phil can play in the middle, can play winger, can play in a false nine position up front. He's playing really well, again in the right moment he scored a goal."

Joao Cancelo played the cross for Foden's equaliser after coming off the bench, while fellow substitute Ilkay Gundogan pulled the ball back for Torres to tap in City's third.

Asked to explain their introductions, Guardiola said: "When you make a change you try to look for something.

"The young two players [Taylor Harwood-Bellis and Tommy Doyle] played really well but the quality of Gundogan and Joao in the final third was so important.

"Gundogan has the sense to score and with Phil and Riyad [Mahrez] in the final third we had the quality for the final pass and dribble and that's why they came in."

Manchester City eased into the fourth round of the FA Cup thanks to a Bernardo Silva-inspired 3-0 win at home to Birmingham City on Sunday.

Pep Guardiola made the somewhat surprising decision to name what was essentially his strongest possible XI, and their superior quality was telling from the start as they quickly raced into a 2-0 lead.

Silva opened the scoring with a gorgeous volley and swiftly doubled City's advantage to cap off a fine move in the 15th minute, before Phil Foden effectively killed off any hopes of a Birmingham comeback before the interval.

City were less deadly in the second period as they failed to add to their lead, but it mattered little as they had no difficulty seeing out a comfortable victory.

Aitor Karanka and Birmingham will have been braced for a difficult day after seeing the line-up chosen by Guardiola, though nothing could have prepared them for the hosts' start.

Silva displayed remarkable technique to make it 1-0 as he unleashed a stunning volley just inside the box to punish a poor clearance, picking out the top-left corner.

He soon got a second with a simple close-range finish, guiding home Kevin De Bruyne's cutback after the Belgian had been well spotted by Riyad Mahrez.

City found their stride again after something of a lull, and Foden increased the lead just past the half-hour mark, rifling into the bottom-right corner from 20 yards after being picked out by Mahrez.

The hosts withdrew De Bruyne, Joao Cancelo and Ruben Dias at half-time, with youngsters Felix Nmecha and Taylor Harwood-Bellis entering alongside John Stones.

City remained dominant and thought they had a fourth goal just past the hour, only for VAR to confirm Mahrez had strayed offside when latching on to Foden's pass.

Silva passed up the chance to complete his hat-trick as he dragged wide when the ball fell kindly for him, and that proved to be his final opportunity as City settled for a three-goal victory.

 

What does it mean? City emphatic but Guardiola learns little

It is fair to say, Guardiola may have surprised a few by naming such a strong starting XI and it seemingly yielded the desired result as City went into half-time 3-0 to the good.

Nevertheless, Guardiola will have learnt very little about that first-half performance given his line-up was full of first-team regulars and they were facing a side struggling in a Championship relegation battle.

A few of the kids were sent on in the second half and did their chances of further opportunities no harm, though the game had become little more than a training exercise by that point.

Foden runs Birmingham ragged

There were several City stars who produced classy displays, but Foden was arguably the most enjoyable to watch. His goal was a great strike, while he had already threatened beforehand with his other two shots. The England international also made three key passes – one of those was particularly clever, as he chested down a long ball to tee up Silva for an effort that hit the side-netting.

Gabriel Jesus frustrated

City's Brazilian striker was by no means poor here – with three shots and a couple of key passes, he was actually quite bright. But he will likely be frustrated by the fact he could not get his name on the scoreboard, particularly given one of his first-half opportunities was a one-one-one situation that he spurned.

What's next?

It is back to Premier League action on Wednesday for City, who host Brighton and Hove Albion. Birmingham continue their quest to get clear of the Championship's relegation zone three days later when they go to coach Karanka's former team Middlesbrough.

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