Pep Guardiola described James Ward-Prowse as the best free-kick taker he has ever seen after Manchester City's 1-0 win over Southampton.

Raheem Sterling struck in the first half to secure a hard-fought three points for City at St Mary's Stadium that moved them to within a point of fourth-place Saints in the Premier League.

Ralph Hasenhuttl's side have enjoyed a strong first third of the season but could not find a way through a resolute City defence as they lost for just the fourth time in 14 league games in 2020-21.

Two of their best chances came from Jannik Vestergaard headers from Ward-Prowse corners, one of which was saved by Ederson.

The midfielder's deliveries have proved a persistent source of danger for Southampton. He became just the ninth player in Premier League history to score two free-kick goals in the same game in the 4-3 win at Aston Villa on November 1, while he scored another after setting up the opener from a corner against Manchester United in a 3-2 home defeat three weeks ago.

Indeed, since the start of 2017-18, no player has attempted more free-kick shots (44) or scored more (eight) than Ward-Prowse.

It seems Guardiola was delighted to have limited the 26-year-old's chances to cause havoc from dead balls.

"We had the momentum in the second half, but we couldn't score and we nearly suffered," he told BBC Sport after the win.

"They put a lot of players inside; they provoke you to be narrow. It's difficult. They don't allow you to be compact, that's why they are so good. That's why they're creating problems.

"They have the best free-kick taker I have seen in my life in Ward-Prowse. Their position in the table, Ralph is doing an excellent job."

While they remain short of their exciting best in attack, City have become imperious in defence in recent weeks.

This game was the first in the Premier League in which Southampton failed to score since losing to Crystal Palace 1-0 in their opening match of the season, and no side can better City for goals conceded (12) and clean sheets (six).

"Defensively, we were excellent," said Guardiola. "Last season, we struggled a lot. Ruben [Dias] has helped us a lot. John [Stones] the last few games has been exceptional.

"We continue to play more and more to create more chances."

Manchester City returned to winning ways in the Premier League with a 1-0 victory away to Southampton on Saturday.

After back-to-back draws with Manchester United and West Brom, and with neither Sergio Aguero nor Gabriel Jesus starting at St Mary's Stadium, there was pressure on Pep Guardiola's men to find a way past a Southampton side who have looked one of the most impressive in the league this season.

A goal from Raheem Sterling proved decisive, the England international producing a composed finish in the first half to secure maximum points on the south coast.

Saints pushed hard in the second half but could not break through a resilient City defence as they suffered just a fourth league loss of 2020-21.

City weathered some early Southampton pressure and forced Alex McCarthy into a smart save to keep out a powerful shot from Joao Cancelo.

The breakthrough came in the 16th minute, Kevin De Bruyne given space to cross for Sterling to sweep home first time from near the penalty spot.

Saints responded well, threatening through Danny Ings – who wanted a penalty from a high boot by Ruben Dias – and a header from Jannik Vestergaard that Ederson held.

De Bruyne missed a good chance on the break as Ralph Hasenhuttl's side stepped up the pressure after the interval, enjoying close to 53 per cent of the possession in the second half having had less than half the ball in the first.

Che Adams was just unable to turn a header on target after a defensive mix-up but that was a rare moment of uncertainty at the back from City, who have now kept four clean sheets in five league matches.

McCarthy saved superbly from an Ilkay Gundogan strike but the home side could not find a way to place Ederson under similar pressure.

 

What does it mean? City stay resolute in title hunt

Liverpool's earlier 7-0 demolition of Crystal Palace delivered an ominous warning to the rest of the title hopefuls.

City's victory was less emphatic but required a huge amount of the defensive strength they have shown in recent weeks.

They are now a point behind fourth-place Southampton and eight adrift of leaders Liverpool, but they do have a game in hand.

Sterling is Guardiola's go-to goal-getter

Sterling has been involved in 149 goals under Guardiola, more than any other player, and his ruthlessness was crucial here as he converted one of City's four shots on target.

With Sergio Aguero struggling with a knee problem and Gabriel Jesus missing here, keeping Sterling fit and firing could be hugely important for Guardiola's plans this term.

Ings blow to frustrated Saints

Losing Ings to injury in the first half left Southampton looking blunt in the final third, despite some excellent play in creating openings.

Any long-term problem to the striker would be a huge setback to their European aspirations.

What's next?

City face Arsenal on Tuesday in the EFL Cup quarter-final before next Saturday's league visit of Newcastle United. Southampton have a week to prepare for a trip to Fulham.

Gabriel Jesus was a surprise absentee and Sergio Aguero only made the bench as Manchester City attempted to return to winning ways at Southampton in the Premier League. 

Brazilian striker Jesus has scored just twice in the Premier League this season, but it was fitness rather than form which saw him sidelined for the clash with Saints on Saturday.

City said Jesus and defender Aymeric Laporte, also missing from the 20-man matchday squad, were "not fully fit" for the match at St Mary's.

Aguero, however, was healthy enough to take his place among the nine substitutes - upped this week from seven in a move to allow for concussion replacements.

The striker has struggled for fitness this season and missed training after the West Brom game, but he took part on Friday, giving manager Pep Guardiola the option to use him at some point.

Ferran Torres and Raheem Sterling led the City attack, as Guardiola made four chances from the midweek draw with West Brom.

Torres, Kyle Walker, John Stones and Bernardo Silva all came into the XI as Jesus, Phil Foden, Nathan Ake and Benjamin Mendy made way.

Goal-shy City, unusually struggling to put the ball in the net this season, went into the game on the south coast 11 points behind leaders Liverpool, albeit with two games in hand, after Jurgen Klopp's men thrashed Crystal Palace 7-0 at Selhurst Park.

The loss of Jesus comes amid a disappointing run of form for the striker in this season's Premier League. He has failed to score in his last five appearances, despite playing the full 90 minutes each time.

He had just three shots in total across his last three games, suggesting he was perhaps due a spell out of the team, regardless of fitness.

Torres, however, has fared similarly disappointingly on the goals front, netting once in 422 minutes in this season's Premier League, with a dismal shot conversion rate - including blocks - of 7.14 per cent. 

City stood four points behind Southampton going into the game.

Pep Guardiola said he is delighted Manchester City are seeing the best of John Stones again but wants it to be a sustained re-emergence from the England defender.

Since the weekend before Christmas last season, Stones has started just eight Premier League games and there have been just three substitute appearances dotted around those.

But Stones played from the off in the three recent consecutive league matches against Burnley, Fulham and Manchester United, before Guardiola shuffled his pack and selected Nathan Ake and Ruben Dias for the midweek Premier League draw with lowly West Brom.

Stones has looked newly assured and ready to play a big part for City, after injuries and off-field issues had appeared to affect his career, with Guardiola pointing to both factors on Friday.

There is considerable competition for the centre-back roles at the club, with Aymeric Laporte also pushing for selection, yet Guardiola sees a fit and focused Stones as a major asset.

"But it's just two or three games," Guardiola pointed out. "So a defender has to be consistent all season so he gives a good, good feeling."

The former Barcelona boss added: "Of course we see him happier and stronger because he's fit, he's not injured two or three weeks and has to stop for one month. That happened a lot.

"He's played really well and that's helping his confidence to do it. Of course his personal life now it's settled, it's a lot better, he's a guy who's so sensible and that helps now to be focused."

Guardiola said the 26-year-old Stones must look after his body and his mind for the rest of his career.

In the Manchester derby against United last weekend, Stones recovered the ball 10 times, just one short of his highest Premier League match tally in a City shirt.

Stones only lost possession three times and had a passing accuracy of 96.51 per cent, a healthy number for the ball-playing former Everton man.

City look well set defensively, but goals have been hard to come by this season, unusually. They will look to show some attacking fluency at high-flying Southampton on Saturday.

Sergio Aguero has missed much of the campaign through injury and neither Gabriel Jesus nor Raheem Sterling has hit a significant scoring streak.

Guardiola wants City's players to be seen as a collective, through their successes and failures, and said: "It's a big mistake believing there is one single player, two single players, as the reason we are not able to score goals, or saying one player or two player why we concede few.

"I see the football as a club and as a total and everyone is important for what you have to do. The numbers speak for themselves, we don't score goals."

Guardiola said the answer is simply to "play better to create chances" and contended that City "can still have an incredible season ahead of us".

He added that "many players here for a long time know exactly what we have to do", and said that was to win and keep winning.

City headed into the weekend eight points behind leaders Liverpool, albeit with one game in hand.

"But you have to win it," Guardiola said of that extra game. "We have to start to win games and games in a row to be there at the end. If we don't it will not be possible."

Pep Guardiola cannot guarantee Sergio Aguero will play a prominent role for Manchester City against Southampton after the forward missed two days of training this week.

Aguero, who has endured fitness setbacks in the wake of knee surgery, made his first league appearance since October in Tuesday's 1-1 draw with West Brom.

He played only 14 minutes and Guardiola revealed the Argentina striker did not return to training until Friday.

Asked how much Aguero could be involved on Saturday, Guardiola replied: "I don't know. After the game he could not train, yesterday no training, today he trained.

"He trained really well but I don't know how many minutes [he will play against Southampton].

"It's important he can make training sessions. Unfortunately after the game he could not, nothing about the knee. Unfortunately a different position. Today he trained."

The draw with West Brom followed a goalless stalemate in the derby with Manchester United and led to more questions about a lack of goals in Guardiola's team.

According to Opta, City have converted 30 per cent of their 'big chances', and only relegation-threatened Sheffield United, West Brom and Burnley have fared worse in this regard in 2020-21.

But Guardiola does not see their issues in front of goal getting to the point where he will consider bringing in a new forward.

The former Barcelona boss pointed to the long-term performance of Gabriel Jesus and the absence of Aguero as reasons not to rush into the transfer market in January.

Jesus averages a goal every 140 minutes, putting him eighth all-time among players to have scored at least 10 Premier League goals. Aguero leads the way with a goal every 108 minutes in his career in the division.

"Absolutely not," Guardiola replied when asked if the goalscoring woes could leave him feeling the need to add to his options up front.

"Sergio could not play much and Gabriel has incredible numbers of minutes and goals since he came here, he is one of the best in history.

"We took 13 corners last game so everyone can score goals. The way we defend depends on the strikers and the same happens up front. The strikers have more responsibility but everyone is involved to try to win games."

Guardiola was also asked if Kevin De Bruyne could receive a rest over a busy period of fixtures.

De Bruyne has played in all but one of City's Premier League games this season, and Guardiola made it clear he will continue to rely on the Belgium star.

"He is so important for us that he won't rest," said Guardiola. "He rested in the Champions League previously and right now we need him."

Liverpool claimed a big win in the Premier League title race on Wednesday, as the champions saw off Tottenham to take a three-point lead at the top.

The Reds will look to extend their unbeaten run in the top flight to 10 matches when they face Crystal Palace on Saturday.

Mohamed Salah is likely to play a key role for Liverpool, while Raheem Sterling is aiming to set a record at Manchester City and the duo headline our Opta-powered Premier League fantasy picks for matchweek 14.

 

MOHAMED SALAH

Salah has scored in all three of Liverpool's games in December so far, and is averaging a goal or assist every 66 minutes in the month across his Premier League career.

It is the best ratio in any month in which he has played more than one match.

Salah already has 11 league goals to his name this term, sitting top of the charts along with Son Heung-min and Dominic Calvert-Lewin.

RAHEEM STERLING

Sterling created City's goal on Tuesday, with a neat cross for Ilkay Gundogan to sweep home his first Premier League goal in nearly a year, but Pep Guardiola's team could only draw 1-1.

It left them eight points adrift of pace-setters Liverpool, though Sterling is well in the hunt for a club record.

The England forward has been directly involved in 148 goals under Guardiola in all competitions, and is looking to become the first player to reach 150 during the Spaniard's time at City.

 

PIERRE-EMERICK AUBAMEYANG

Arsenal are in dismal form heading into Saturday's contest with Everton, who have won their last two outings – against Chelsea and Leicester City respectively.

Mikel Arteta's team ended a three-game losing streak when they drew at home to Southampton, though it is now six matches without a top-flight win for the Gunners.

One positive is that Aubameyang netted the equaliser against the Saints – just his third league goal of the season. He has scored four times in as many starts against Everton – he only has more goals against Burnley (seven) and Watford (six) in the Premier League than the Toffees.

 

CALLUM WILSON

An alternative to Aubameyang could be Wilson, who has been directly involved in 10 Premier League goals in 11 appearances for Newcastle United.

His seven goals and three assists mean he has contributed to seven more goals than any other Magpies player so far.

Newcastle take on Fulham on Saturday, with Scott Parker's team having drawn their last two games - versus Liverpool and Brighton and Hove Albion.

 

HARRY KANE

Before bursting onto the Premier League scene with Tottenham, Kane spent time on loan with Leicester, and against no club has he scored more in all competitions.

Kane has netted 16 times against the Foxes – five more than against any other team.

With Spurs having failed to win their last two games, their talisman will be determined to continue that form and get Mourinho's men back on track, though Leicester will be no pushovers.

PATRICK BAMFORD

Leeds United forward Bamford moved onto nine league goals for the season when he drew Marcelo Bielsa's team level with Newcastle on Wednesday.

The Whites went onto win 5-2 and, since Bielsa took charge of Leeds in 2018, no player has scored more goals for the club than Bamford.

In 85 appearances across all competitions, the former Chelsea forward has 35 goals.

 

PEDRO NETO

Diogo Jota's departure to Liverpool and Raul Jimenez's head injury means there is extra onus on Wolves' remaining attackers, and Neto delivered the goods with a last-gasp winner against Chelsea last time out.

Neto has been directly involved in as many goals in 13 Premier League appearances this season – three goals, three assists– as he was in 29 games last season, when he scored four times and set up another two goals.

Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Robert Lewandowski were named in the attack for the 2020 FIFA FIFPro Men's World11.

The trio were all finalists for The Best FIFA Men's Player award and so were unsurprisingly included in the FIFPro Men's World11.

The chief shock elsewhere in the team saw Alisson preferred in goal to Manuel Neuer.

Neuer, who captained Bayern Munich to the treble, had earlier been named The Best FIFA Men's Goalkeeper, beating Alisson and Jan Oblak to the award.

The Germany skipper had said: "It's one of the best years of my career, of course. We were so confident with our team and it's amazing what we have done in this year, 2020, especially in the summer when we played together in Lisbon [in the Champions League]."

In a team voted for by the players, Alisson was joined by Liverpool team-mates Trent Alexander-Arnold, Virgil van Dijk and Thiago Alcantara.

Thiago spent the majority of the year with Bayern, who were represented by Alphonso Davies and Joshua Kimmich as well as Lewandowski.

Sergio Ramos and Kevin De Bruyne completed the line-up.


FIFA FIFPro Men's World11: Alisson; Trent Alexander-Arnold, Virgil van Dijk, Sergio Ramos, Alphonso Davies; Joshua Kimmich, Kevin De Bruyne, Thiago Alcantara; Lionel Messi, Robert Lewandowski, Cristiano Ronaldo.

Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Robert Lewandowski were named in the attack for the 2020 FIFA FIFPro Men's World XI.

The trio were all finalists for The Best FIFA Men's Player award and so were unsurprisingly included in the World XI.

The chief shock elsewhere in the team saw Alisson preferred in goal to Manuel Neuer.

Neuer, who captained Bayern Munich to the treble, had earlier been named The Best FIFA Men's Goalkeeper, beating Alisson and Jan Oblak to the award.

The Germany skipper had said: "It's one of the best years of my career, of course. We were so confident with our team and it's amazing what we have done in this year, 2020, especially in the summer when we played together in Lisbon [in the Champions League]."

In a team voted for by the players, Alisson was joined by Liverpool team-mates Trent Alexander-Arnold, Virgil van Dijk and Thiago Alcantara.

Thiago spent the majority of the year with Bayern, who were represented by Alphonso Davies and Joshua Kimmich as well as Lewandowski.

Sergio Ramos and Kevin De Bruyne completed the line-up.


FIFA FIFPro Men's World XI: Alisson; Trent Alexander-Arnold, Virgil van Dijk, Sergio Ramos, Alphonso Davies; Joshua Kimmich, Kevin De Bruyne, Thiago Alcantara; Lionel Messi, Robert Lewandowski, Cristiano Ronaldo.

Manchester United and Leeds United meet in the top flight for the first time since 2004 and Sam Allardyce makes his Premier League return this weekend.

Leeds travel to Old Trafford on Sunday looking for a repeat of their stunning FA Cup win the last time they faced the Red Devils away from home almost 11 years ago.

Allardyce starts his reign as West Brom head coach with a derby against Aston Villa in a late kick-off at The Hawthorns on Sunday, while struggling Arsenal travel to Everton on Saturday and leaders Liverpool are on the road at Crystal Palace.

See if you can kick-start the weekend with maximum points in our Opta-powered quiz. Answers are at the bottom.

 

1. Paul Pogba made his senior debut for Manchester United as a teenager in a League Cup match against Leeds. What year did that match take place in?

2. Arsenal have failed to score in their last two games at Everton. Who was the last player to find the back of the net for the Gunners at Goodison Park, coming in a 5-2 victory in October 2017?

3. Southampton are eyeing back-to-back Premier League wins against Manchester City on Saturday. What was the score when the Saints beat Pep Guardiola's side in July?

4. Liverpool have won six consecutive matches against Palace. Who grabbed a double the last time the Eagles beat the Reds – 2-1 at Anfield in April 2017? 

5. Allardyce has taken charge of more different clubs in the Premier League than any other manager, with the Baggies being the eighth. He has only lost his first game in charge of a team in the top flight once. With which side did he making a losing start?

 

Answers:

1. 2011
2. Aaron Ramsey 
3. 1-0
4. Christian Benteke
5. Sunderland (a 1-0 loss to West Brom in October 2015)

Just under a month ago, Manchester City excitedly announced Pep Guardiola had extended his contract with the club until 2023, but the news was curious in that the response from supporters and media alike was somewhat muted.

While the fact it was only a new two-year deal may have contributed to that, with respect to fans there seemed to be trepidation as to whether Guardiola was still getting the results – stylistically as well as wins – many expected.

Although some will have dismissed the signs of City turning stale as natural by-products of a turbulent year for the sport, others undoubtedly began to voice concern at City's performances and the lack of intensity Guardiola's team have shown.

And City have arguably got worse since the news of his extension broke – their four wins in the past nine games across all competitions have been against Olympiacos, Burnley, Fulham and Marseille.

They lost to title hopefuls Tottenham and produced largely insipid displays against Manchester United and West Brom.

City will end the weekend 11 points adrift of the summit if they lose to high-flying Southampton and Liverpool beat Crystal Palace – something is not right at the Etihad Stadium.

 

IMPOTENT CITY

In 2019-20, many put the 18-point deficit between champions Liverpool and City down to the latter's apparent defensive frailties, though in reality they only conceded two more goals than the Reds.

Nevertheless, City bolstered their backline with Ruben Dias and Nathan Ake, and although still by no means perfect, their 12 goals conceded this season is the joint-best in the division with Tottenham.

However, perhaps they would have been better off diverting some of that transfer focus to the attack. As Opta data shows, there is little doubt where their problems lie this term.

Firstly, City's haul of 18 goals from their first 12 league matches is by far their lowest under Guardiola and almost half the 35 they managed by the same point last term.

The most recent season where they had a worse scoring record at this stage was 2010-11 (15 goals), though they had one more point (21) than they do now, with 20 the fewest City have accumulated by this stage since 13 in 2008-09.

Obviously, you need to shoot to score, so it makes sense that City are having fewer shots than before as well – they've tried their luck 194 times this term, a decrease from 258 at this point in 2019-20. Their previous low in this respect under Guardiola was 206 after 12 games in 2017-18, but their conversion rate was off the charts at 19.4 per cent.

The closest City have got to that in any other season with Guardiola was 14.6 per cent the following year – this term it is just 9.3 per cent. It's the only campaign under the Catalan coach in which their conversion rate is below 13 per cent after 12 games.

 

NO LONGER INTIMIDATING

The intimidating aura City have had under Guardiola appears to have vanished, their one-paced performances against United and the Baggies evidence of that.

Last season City won 12 matches across all competitions by at least a four-goal margin, yet, as we approach the halfway mark this term, they have done so just twice.

One of those was, of course, against Burnley at the end of last month – though one might argue this doesn't say much about City given that was the fourth time in a little over two years they have beaten the Clarets 5-0.

But City's goalscoring issues can be further amplified beyond just looking at how often they're scoring, and once again it makes for unpleasant viewing for Guardiola.

Compared to his previous four seasons in charge, City's touches in the opposing box have come down to 32.4 per game (it was 42.6 in 2019-20) and that understandably has a knock-on effect.

In every season under Guardiola before 2020-21, City have improved their goalscoring chance quality (excluding penalties) before a massive regression this term. In 2019-20, their non-penalty xG (expected goals) per game was 2.25 – it is now just 1.38.

Even accounting for those excluded penalties, there is still a huge drop-off from 2.48 to 1.57 per game.

Their average non-penalty shot xG rating is 0.087, meaning one would expect the 'average' player to score 8.7 per cent of the time – again, this is a significant drop from 11.6 per cent in 2019-20.

 

DE BRUYNE OR BUST

Given City's issues in front of goal seemingly coincide with Sergio Aguero's absences, it might seem logical to link the two, but Opta data shows City's record with and without him since August 2011 is very similar.

In Aguero's 266 Premier League appearances, City have averaged 2.2 points and 2.3 goals per game – those figures remain identical for the 88 matches he has missed, while the team's win percentage actually goes up to 69.3 from 66.9.

As City's underwhelming xG data suggests, their problem has been chance creation, which again leads us back to the suggestion that – in hindsight – perhaps they would have been better off adding further reinforcements to their frontline.

Kevin De Bruyne has of course remained a dependable star, as evidenced by his 10 assists in 15 appearances across all competitions – he is well on track to surpass his 22 from 48 games last term.

 

But the Belgian does appear to be playing a different role. Whether this is to compensate for David Silva's exit or for other attack-minded players' productivity decreasing, it is unclear, but his season heatmaps show De Bruyne is operating almost equally across the breadth of the final third – in 2019-20, he was at his most influential towards the right flank.

His creativity has suffered, though he is still playing 3.51 key passes per 90 minutes in the league (4.51 in 2019-20). It's in front of goal where his influence has decreased the most, however, as De Bruyne has scored only twice all season, or once every 591 minutes, and both have been penalties. His frequency was once every 239 minutes last season across all competitions.

 

The problem for City is that, although De Bruyne continues to carry the burden, other players expected to create in the final third are struggling.

Bernardo Silva (0.24 from 2.26), Phil Foden (1.07 from 1.82), Raheem Sterling (1.38 from 1.62) are all playing fewer key passes per game than last term, while new signing Ferran Torres (1.07) – although clearly a talented player – has not been able to pick up the slack left by David Silva's departure (2.41).

The only player who seems to have remained consistent is arguably the most-maligned among City's forwards – Riyad Mahrez. He plays 2.76 key passes on average per 90 minutes – it was 2.78 in 2019-20.

Given Aguero's quality in front of goal, it seems unlikely he wouldn't at the very least lead to a marginal improvement when he returns for good, but if one thing is clear, it's that City's creators have to get craftier.

Paul Pogba may be about to experience a case of deja vu as he drifts towards the Manchester United exit door.

When the mercurial midfielder waved goodbye to Old Trafford in 2012, the Frenchman headed to the bright lights of Turin to make his name at Juventus.

Fast forward eight years and it seems the 27-year-old Pogba is edging closer towards retracing his own footsteps in an attempt to relaunch his career.

 

TOP STORY – JUVENTUS 'OPEN TALKS' WITH POGBA'S AGENT

Manchester United star Paul Pogba is a "top target" for Juventus in 2021, according to journalist Carlo Garganese.

Serie A champions Juve have already began talks with Pogba's agent Mino Raiola, and a deal could be done as soon as January.

Raiola claimed Pogba's United career was over in an interview with Italian outlet Tuttosport last week, prompting links to Juve, Real Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain.

If an agreement cannot be reached in January, the player United paid £89million for four years ago could be set for a Serie A return in the off-season.

 

ROUND-UP

- United will have to wait until the end of the season to bring in any new recruits, according to the Manchester Evening News. But reports from Todo Fichajes in Spain suggest the Red Devils are set to reignite their interest in Atletico Madrid midfielder Saul Niguez as a potential Pogba replacement. United are said to be preparing a £63m (€70m) offer for the Spaniard.

- With Liverpool and midfielder Georginio Wijnaldum still yet to come to agreement on the terms of a new contract, Le10Sport reports that the Reds are lining up Lille's former Bayern Munich and Swansea man Renato Sanches to come in and fill the Dutchman's shoes.

- Liverpool are shopping for centre-back reinforcements after losing Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez to long-term injuries. Barcelona seemed primed to sign Manchester City fringe player Eric Garcia but Spanish outlet Diario AS says Liverpool are ready to swoop for the summer free agent.

- Arsenal are eying a move for Porto midfielder Fabio Viera, who has a £27m (€29.9m) release fee in his contract, according to Record. Meanwhile, Defensa Central are reporting that Gunners manager Mikel Arteta has put Lyon's Houssem Aouar and Madrid's Isco on his January wish list.

- One of Europe's brightest young prospects, Hungarian attacker Dominik Szoboszlai, will complete his move from Salzburg to RB Leipzig after a medical on Thursday, Fabrizio Romano reports. Arsenal, Madrid and Bayern Munich had shown interest in the 20-year-old.

West Brom have sacked Slaven Bilic despite securing a draw against Manchester City on Tuesday, with Sam Allardyce reportedly set to take over. 

While the draw with City came as something of a surprise and suggested Bilic was still capable of getting the Baggies back on track, the club's decision was apparently already made. 

West Brom announced his dismissal on Wednesday but media reports began circulating soon after the clash at the Etihad Stadium. 

Bilic leaves the club 19th in the Premier League table with seven points from 13 games, though they are only two points adrift of safety. 

A club statement read: "West Bromwich Albion have today parted company with head coach Slaven Bilic. 

"Assistant coaches, Dean Racunica and Danilo Butorovic, and first team coach Julian Dicks have also left the club with immediate effect." 

West Brom also thanked Bilic for guiding the club to promotion from the Championship last season, in what was his first campaign at the helm. 

Bilic is only the second Premier League boss to leave his post during 2020 – there were nine casualties in 2019 - with the current year seeing the lowest figure since 1999. 

Numerous names have been linked as a potential replacement, though it seems former England boss Allardyce is the favourite. 

Allardyce has already taken charge of more Premier League clubs (seven) than any other manager, with Mark Hughes next on six. 

Only Arsene Wenger (828), Alex Ferguson (810), Harry Redknapp (641) and David Moyes (557) have managed more games than Allardyce (512) in the division. 

If he is appointed by West Brom, this will be the fifth time Allardyce has taken a Premier League job mid-season – on each previous occasion, he has finished in a higher position than when he arrived. 

In the 2008-09 season, Allardyce took charge of Blackburn Rovers when they were 19th and they ended the campaign 15th. He guided Sunderland to 17th and safety in 2015-16 after being appointed when they were second from bottom in the table, while the following season Crystal Palace were 17th when he was hired - he took them to 14th. 

Finally, in 2017-18, his Everton squad concluded the season sitting in eighth position, a climb of five places. 

Is Lionel Messi set to swap Spain for France?

Paris Saint-Germain have been among the clubs linked with Messi.

And rumours suggest PSG believe they will land the Barcelona superstar.

 

TOP STORY – PSG POISED TO SIGN MESSI?

Paris Saint-Germain are preparing to announce the signing of Lionel Messi, according to FootballTransfers.

Messi, who is out of contract at the end of the season, tried to leave Barcelona at the start of 2020-21 but the six-time Ballon d'Or winner opted to remain at Camp Nou.

Now, Ligue 1 champions PSG are growing increasingly confident of luring Messi to Paris on a free transfer, having told their stores around the French capital to brace themselves for a high demand of shirt sales.

The Daily Star, however, claims Pep Guardiola's Manchester City remain optimistic of signing Messi.

 

ROUND-UP

- Premier League champions Liverpool are set to offer star defender Virgil van Dijk a new blockbuster five-year contract, reports Fabrizio Romano.

Bayern Munich are in pole position to sign RB Leipzig centre-back Dayot Upamecano but the Bundesliga champions are still undecided on outlaying such a significant sum amid the coronavirus pandemic, says Sport Bild. Upamecano has been heavily linked with Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool.

- According to Corriere della Sera, Inter and Milan are the main contenders to sign Atalanta star Papu Gomez. The captain and Atalanta head coach Gian Piero Gasperini have fallen out, leading to widespread reports Gomez will leave in January. Inter are the favourites to sign Gomez as they could reportedly offer Christian Eriksen in exchange. The likes of PSG, Lazio and Napoli have also emerged as possible destinations.

Hakan Calhanoglu is set to stay at Milan, reports Calciomercato. United have been linked with a move for the soon-to-be free agent.

- Romano says Sergio Ramos is likely to continue at Madrid beyond the 2020-21 season. Los Blancos captain Ramos is nearing the end of his contract, leading to links with the likes of PSG, Juventus and United.

Pep Guardiola denied confidence was the problem for Manchester City in front of goal after his side were held to a 1-1 draw by West Brom.

The struggling Baggies earned a hard-fought point thanks to a Ruben Dias own goal and a string of superb stops from goalkeeper Sam Johnstone, who denied Ilkay Gundogan – the opening goalscorer on Tuesday – and Raheem Sterling from point-blank range in stoppage time.

City had 26 attempts on total, six of which were saved by Johnstone, including a fine stop from a Kevin De Bruyne free-kick in the 86th minute.

Sergio Aguero made his league return from injury late on but lashed wide with the only chance that fell his way, underlining the problems for a City side who have been outscored by all but one of the sides presently in the Premier League's top 10.

Guardiola does not believe confidence in front of goal is the root cause of City's troubles but accepts their failure to take chances is a concern.

"In the second half we did everything; unfortunately, we couldn't score," Guardiola told Amazon Prime Sport.

"We create enough to win the game – we did everything but, in the end, you have to put the ball in the net.

"You don't have to be so clever to see that the margin is not quite like two seasons ago. This year we are struggling a little bit more. No [it's not confidence]. We created the chances. In games we are better, we are there, but unfortunately, we cannot score.

"It's not about this [being five points behind the leaders]. We have to win these games, all respect to West Brom, so we know it, we've dropped points.

"The top of the league is not far away, of course not, but at home against West Brom, you have to win. But still, we're in early December and a lot of games to play. Non-stop, [in] four days another one.

"I think we played to win, deserved to win, but we didn't win it. Football is about end results. We created chances, we were there, but it was not enough."

Gundogan opened the scoring in the 30th minute, sweeping home his first Premier League goal in 359 days, but Dias' own goal – the first time City had conceded in 608 minutes across all competitions – restored parity before half-time.

"I think we deserved better. We had the chances; the way we conceded the goal was frustrating," Gundogan said.

"I don't know what to say. It's disappointing for us to get just one point. These kinds of games, we need to win, we must win.

"We have had great years with Pep, great football in the past, so obviously we have set the level quite high, so the expectation is not going down, it only goes up.

"When you win, you need to try to prove yourself again. It's maybe more difficult to win in a row than it is to win the first time.

"You can see all over Europe the big teams are struggling, not just in the Premier League. Everyone is struggling with the tighter fixtures and it's not going to be easier.

"We cannot complain, we need to look forward, but that is perhaps an explanation why it is not always easy. We obviously struggle as well, we are human beings not robots, but we know when we have not played our best game."

Despite claiming a hard-fought draw to lift themselves six points clear of bottom-club Sheffield United, West Brom's players may not have done enough to save Slaven Bilic's job, with reports circulating that the club have made a decision to part ways with the Croatian.

Star performer Johnstone, however, was adamant the Baggies' squad are fully behind their boss.

"We're buzzing," he said. "The manager's great, we all fight for him, each other, the club. The boys love him.

"We knew getting promoted that'd it be tough. We're not hiding away from that; we know that if we play like that, the luck will go our way."

Manchester City were held again in the Premier League as West Brom snatched a 1-1 draw thanks to Ruben Dias' own goal.

On the back of a lacklustre Manchester derby, City once again lacked the cutting edge they have so often shown under Pep Guardiola's tutelage. 

Ilkay Gundogan's 30th-minute strike – his first in the Premier League in almost a year – nosed City ahead on Tuesday, but they were pegged back when Dias turned in Semi Ajayi's wayward effort.

Though Sergio Aguero made his return late on, City failed to pick the lock, Sam Johnstone making two wonderful stoppage-time saves either side of Gundogan curling a free-kick inches wide as the Baggies held on for a hard-earned point.

Despite enjoying 63.2 per cent possession in the opening five minutes, City should have been behind when Grant found space in their area, only to curl a tame effort straight at Ederson.

Rodri sent a header over from Kevin De Bruyne's excellent corner in the 25th minute, yet City soon had the lead their dominance warranted.

Joao Cancelo fed Raheem Sterling, who rolled it back for Gundogan to sweep home his first Premier League goal in 359 days.

De Bruyne's set-piece skill opened up West Brom again in the 38th minute, with Cancelo volleying wide from a deep corner.

For all City's dominance, it was West Brom who struck next – Ajayi managing to get away a shot that diverted in off Dias to level the scores at half-time.

De Bruyne prodded wide from 18 yards shortly after the restart, before again turning provider with a corner, from which Gabriel Jesus headed over. 

Johnstone thwarted Jesus and De Bruyne as City kept up the pressure, with Guardiola turning to Aguero with 15 minutes remaining, but West Brom’s goalkeeper again came up with the goods in injury time.

Having kept out a close-range header from Gundogan – who subsequently sent a free-kick into the side netting – Johnstone spread himself to deny Sterling a last-gasp winner and seal a deserved draw.

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