Aymeric Laporte says it is "always difficult" without football with the coronavirus pandemic coming during an injury-hit campaign for the Manchester City defender.

France centre-back Laporte has made just eight appearances in all competitions for City this season thanks largely to a serious knee injury sustained in August.

Laporte made his comeback in January but suffered a hamstring strain at the end of February, while the suspension of football across most of Europe due to the outbreak of COVID-19 has been a further frustration.

In an interview with City's website, Laporte said: "I am okay. I am at home, safe. Doing nothing but training a little bit, staying at home and doing some streaming online. 

"I am in Manchester. For me, it was a long time without football on the pitch and it was so difficult. The second time without football and it is always difficult; don't touch the ball, don't be on the pitch in the stadium playing in front of the fans and everything. 

"We have to keep it how it is and waiting for what is the best for our health which is the most important right now."

On his fitness, he added: "I feel fit, no problems. At home I have many things to do, to train, to run. I have a bike, I have weights, I have many things. I cannot do everything, because it is not like being on the pitch. 

"The club gave us a training programme to do at home. Sometimes train together with all of the team. They have given us many things to practice and to do at home."

Laporte said he has now started to join in online gaming with his City team-mates, though was reluctant to offer an opinion as to who is the best in the squad at FIFA. 

"I started yesterday. I will play more games on the internet with many players," he said. 

"Yesterday I was playing with Kyle Walker for example and Raheem [Sterling] today. We will see, maybe I will invite someone to play with me.

 "It depends which games [as to who is the best]. Don't ask me about FIFA because I don't know!

"Everyone says they are the best so I can't pick just one of them. I am not the best for sure! I don't look to improve; I just want to have fun."

Harry Kane's future continues to make headlines.

Since saying he would not stay at Tottenham "for the sake of it" in his pursuit of silverware, Kane has been linked to Manchester United and Real Madrid.

Now, Spurs have reportedly named their fee for the England international.

 

TOP STORY – TOTTENHAM SET KANE PRICE

Tottenham will allow star striker Harry Kane to leave for £200million, according to the Daily Mail.

Kane has been heavily linked to Premier League rivals Manchester United and LaLiga giants Real Madrid.

Spurs are reportedly keen on some extra funds amid the coronavirus pandemic.

ROUND-UP

Lautaro Martinez to Barcelona? Not necessarily. The Sun claims Manchester City are favourites to sign the Inter forward, despite the Argentina international being tipped to move to Camp Nou.

- Fabrizio Romano says Juventus will consider moving for Lazio midfielder Sergej Milinkovic-Savic if they are unsuccessful in their pursuit of United star Paul Pogba. Brescia's Sandro Tonali and Gaetano Castrovilli of Fiorentina are also on the list.

Barca are desperate to strengthen their squad. Martinez is the priority up front for the LaLiga champions, but Mundo Deportivo says they want more. Barca are eyeing a midfielder, with Napoli star Fabian Ruiz and Tottenham's Tanguy Ndombele being considered. The Catalan giants are also looking for a central defender and have been linked to City centre-back Aymeric Laporte, Dayot Upamecano of Leipzig and Sevilla's Diego Carlos.

Inter are interested in Bayern Munich midfielder Corentin Tolisso, reports Calciomercato. The Frenchman is also being followed by United and Arsenal.

- Signing Mauro Icardi remains the main objective for Juve, according to Calciomercato. The Serie A champions are keen to sign a striker amid links to Inter's Icardi, who is on loan at Paris Saint-Germain. Borussia Dortmund's Erling Haaland, Timo Werner of RB Leipzig, City forward Gabriel Jesus, Arkadiusz Milik of Napoli, Lyon's Moussa Dembele and Kane are also on Juve's radar.

Pep Guardiola downplayed the significance of his tactical tweaks and bemoaned Manchester City's injury problems, stating: "No managers can do it without the players".

Guardiola oversaw a 2-1 win away at Real Madrid in the Champions League last-16 first leg on Wednesday.

The City boss received widespread praise for his approach at the Santiago Bernabeu, lining up with Gabriel Jesus on the left wing and two midfielders - Kevin De Bruyne and Bernardo Silva - up front.

Yet Guardiola, preparing for the EFL Cup final against Aston Villa, suggested on Friday too much credence is given to systems and how a team sets up.

Asked if it would be difficult for City to change their tactics at Wembley on Sunday, the former Barcelona and Bayern Munich coach fired back.

"First, I want to say I think you are wrong. You didn't learn," he told reporters. "The line to win and lose is so, so tight. Forget about [the tactical changes].

"I did it many times and it didn't work - it was a 'disaster' in today's words because for many, many other reasons - but that doesn't count.

"Still, people don't learn that the manager of the team who wins is perfect, a genius, and the manager who loses is a disaster. Still, people don't understand that it doesn't work in that way.

"During the same game, Sergio Ramos kicks the ball, Fernandinho touches here [points to the shoulder] and it goes out.

"[If not] they score two goals and, after that, the decisions of the manager of Manchester City would have been a disaster and the decisions from Zidane were perfect. And it was a little, little, little detail that can make a difference.

"What happened to us in the past? A thousand examples I could explain in the last three or four years about these knockout stages: we're out for these details, we're in for these details."

Along with the "little, little, little" details, Guardiola attributes his team's results down to the players.

He was therefore frustrated to again lose star defender Aymeric Laporte to a hamstring injury in Madrid and suggested City might have been closer to runaway Premier League leaders Liverpool but for such setbacks.

"A manager needs the players," Guardiola said. "All the players are fantastic but, the more you have, you have alternatives, for rotations, to be fresh.

"To be in one competition a season, you can handle it with 12, 13 good players. To be in involved in all the competitions, you need 16, 17 top, top players.

"There are 11 [in a team], so that means six, seven top, top players who are not playing. Managers depend absolutely 100 per cent on the quality of the players. As a human being, first of all, and you have - in most of the cases we have - incredible, good, talented players.

"We don't have success, the managers. No managers can do it without the players."

Aymeric Laporte is set to be out for three or four weeks with a hamstring strain, meaning he will miss the Champions League last-16 second leg against Real Madrid.

French defender Laporte had to be replaced by Fernandinho 33 minutes into Wednesday's contest at the Santiago Bernabeu after appearing to suffer the injury in a collision with Karim Benzema.

City went on to win the match 2-1 and give themselves a significant advantage ahead of the second leg in Manchester on March 17, but Laporte is unlikely to be available for that clash.

Speaking at a news conference on Friday ahead of Sunday's EFL Cup final against Aston Villa, Guardiola said: "[It's a] hamstring injury, so prognosis will be normally three weeks, one month, more or less.

"We tried to avoid it but unfortunately, it's happened. After four or five months, to go directly into demanding games, sometimes it happens."

It is another blow for the injury-plagued Laporte, who has already missed a chunk of the season.

The former Athletic Bilbao centre-back was sidelined with a serious knee injury in August and only made his return on January 21 against Sheffield United.

"It's tough but we have to overcome this situation. Life is not easy. Always in this world the people who survive are those who overcome the bad moments," added Guardiola.

"It is what it is. If you think 'I am an unlucky guy', you will not improve. Accept it, work harder to come back in the best condition possible."

Laporte is a key member of the City side and is widely regarded as comfortably their most consistent centre-back having played 35 times as they won the Premier League title last season.

On top of the EFL Cup final and the visit of Madrid, Laporte is expected to miss the Manchester derby and the trip to Chelsea, which are scheduled either side of the Champions League contest.

An FA Cup clash with Sheffield Wednesday and Premier League meeting with Burnley should also come too soon for Laporte, though he could be in contention again by the time Liverpool visit the Etihad Stadium on April 5.

Aymeric Laporte is set to be out for three or four weeks with a hamstring strain, meaning he will miss the Champions League last-16 second leg against Real Madrid.

Manchester City completed a stunning comeback at the Santiago Bernabeu as Kevin De Bruyne's penalty secured a 2-1 victory over Real Madrid in the first leg of their Champions League last-16 tie.

Despite being the better side for much of a frenetic encounter in Spain, City – who lost Aymeric Laporte to injury in the first half – looked set to be heading for a defeat when Isco put Madrid ahead on the hour.

But De Bruyne, a peripheral figure in the first half, led the fightback, supplying the cross from which Gabriel Jesus headed home an equaliser before coolly slotting in from 12 yards after Dani Carvajal had brought down substitute Raheem Sterling.

And Madrid's frustrations were compounded with four minutes remaining, captain Sergio Ramos seeing red for a last-man challenge on Jesus as City secured a lead to take back to Manchester.

Aymeric Laporte's injury woes continued as the Manchester City defender hobbled off midway through the first half of Wednesday's Champions League clash with Real Madrid.

Laporte, who has missed the majority of the season with a serious knee injury sustained in August, only returned to action on January 21 against Sheffield United.

The 25-year-old suffered a knock in that match which kept him out until February 19, though he had started in City's previous two Premier League matches before their trip to Santiago Bernabeu.

However, Laporte lasted just 33 minutes in Madrid, with the centre-back unable to continue after sustaining an injury during a collision with Karim Benzema in City's area, and Pep Guardiola could now be without the former Athletic Bilbao man for another extended period.

He was replaced by Fernandinho, who has filled in as a defender for much of the campaign.

City face Aston Villa in the EFL Cup final on Sunday, before travelling to Sheffield Wednesday in the FA Cup.

Twelve days on from being barred from the Champions League for the next two seasons, Manchester City travel to face the most successful team in the history of the competition.

But, despite a UEFA punishment that will now be appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport and a domestic campaign being contested at a distance from runaway Premier League leaders Liverpool, there are reasons for City to be optimistic ahead of their last-16 showdown against Real Madrid.

Here, we look at some of the factors that could prove decisive in Wednesday's first leg at the Santiago Bernabeu – a match that might come to be viewed as season-defining for Pep Guardiola and his players.

 

Laporte the leader and lynchpin

All eyes will be looking for Raheem Sterling's name when the City teamsheet drops in the Spanish capital, with the England forward expected to win his race to recover from a hamstring strain suffered last month.

However, Guardiola has already confirmed an arguably even more influential performer will be available.

"Aymeric Laporte's injury broke the defensive organisation," a source close to the City boss told Stats Perform and this conclusion is hard to contest.

Guardiola was without his central defensive lynchpin for almost five months due to a meniscus injury suffered during the 4-0 victory over Brighton and Hove Albion at the end of August.

In the three games Laporte has started since his return, City have won each time and collected three clean sheets – the former Athletic Bilbao star bringing an air of assurance and authority a makeshift backline has largely lacked in his absence.

Since he signed in January 2018, City have conceded an average of 0.6 goals per game in the Premier League with Laporte in the team. This jumps to 1.1 without him, with their win percentage down from 86.3 per cent to 60.7.

Indeed, in 28 top-flight games not featuring the Frenchman during this period, City have conceded 31 times – one more than the 30 let in across 51 matches with Laporte on the pitch. 

"He just brings stability," former City captain and central defender Richard Dunne told Stats Perform.

"He reads the game well, he holds his position, he stays on his feet. He's a steady head in that defence. At times Nicolas Otamendi can get distracted and goes off out of position, John Stones can maybe dwell on the ball at times.

"For the whole team – for the midfielders in front and the goalkeeper behind – they can trust Laporte, they know what he's going to do and where he's going to be.

"Every defence needs a leader. Liverpool have one in Virgil van Dijk and City have missed it this season when Laporte's not been there."

 

Tactical flexibility

Laporte's lengthy spell on the sidelines also took a toll on City as an attacking force, with the build-up patterns so fundamental to Guardiola's style becoming a touch predictable and sluggish without the defender's astute range of passing from his immaculate left boot.

"A right-footer playing on the left tends to come back inside and the ball gets played down one side of the pitch the whole time," Dunne explained.

"A left-footer will play the ball down the line and City's game plan is to use the whole pitch. Laporte opens that up. He gives them more options in terms of playing out from the back."

Additional injury problems – such as the cruciate ligament damage sustained by Leroy Sane, who has not travelled to Madrid as he steps up work on the training field – have persuaded Guardiola to step away from the 4-3-3/4-1-4-1 setup that blazed a trail to consecutive Premier League titles.

The experiments have largely been successful, with Kevin De Bruyne dazzling in a variety of roles amid frequent shape shifting.

Phil Foden made his first Premier League start of the season on the left wing in a 4-2-3-1 at Arsenal in December, while the first leg of the EFL Cup semi-final at Manchester United saw City play a hybrid 4-2-4 without a conventional striker. In each match, Guardiola's men were 3-0 up at half-time.

Elsewhere, using three at the back occasionally has served to limit the opposition, if also compromising City's attacking flow. Zinedine Zidane cannot be sure what configuration he will face, although seasoned Guardiola observers might think this is something in the Real Madrid boss' favour.

 

Madrid an antidote to Guardiola overthink?

If a wildcard selection backfires, City's manager will once again face the accusations of overthinking that have dogged his Champions League failures since collecting a second European title in three seasons at Barcelona in 2010-11.

This can be traced back to his Bayern Munich suffering a 4-0 hammering against Madrid in a 2014 semi-final, when all-out attack backfired. Last season, City were left to rue a safety-first approach in the first leg when a riotous return versus Tottenham ended in a 4-4 aggregate departure on away goals.

In between those blots there was the swiftly abandoned ploy of man marking Neymar, Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi as Bayern raggedly chased a vintage Barca around Camp Nou, before Liverpool ran roughshod over a packed City midfield at Anfield in 2018.

It should be pointed out that decent chunks of luck have gone against Guardiola and his teams during this barren run, while his tactical tweaks have helped to yield numerous successes elsewhere. Nevertheless, a narrative is established.

Perhaps facing an opponent with whom he has enjoyed a career-long rivalry, while leading a club seemingly in the throes of a siege mentality, provides a handy opportunity to break it.

Before losing 1-0 with Bayern, Guardiola was unbeaten in seven games as a coach facing Madrid at the Bernabeu. In El Clasico, his record reads nine wins, four draws and two defeats, during a period where Madrid called upon the might of Jose Mourinho, Cristiano Ronaldo and others.

Zidane's current crop featured many of the heroes of Los Blancos' three consecutive Champions League final triumphs between 2016 and 2018, although they have one win in their past four matches across all competitions and face a potentially decisive LaLiga showdown versus Barcelona this weekend.

Then there is the tantalising ingredient of Guardiola's stance in support of a Catalan self-determination – another factor to fire the most vocal elements at the Bernabeu, those sworn enemies who will hope not to witness another of his greatest deeds.

Raheem Sterling and Aymeric Laporte have been named in Manchester City's initial squad for Wednesday's Champions League last-16 first leg with Real Madrid.

England international Sterling has missed City's last two games with a hamstring injury, while Laporte left the field before the hour mark in Saturday's 1-0 win against Leicester City.

However, both players have been included as part of the Premier League champions' 22-man travelling party for the clash at the Santiago Bernabeu.

Leroy Sane was thought to be in contention after returning to training last month, but the winger did not make the trip to the Spanish capital on Tuesday.

Madrid also named their 19-man squad on the eve of the match, with Gareth Bale returning to the fold after sitting out Saturday's 1-0 loss at Levante through illness.

Eden Hazard misses out on selection after sustaining a potentially season-ending ankle injury in the same match, but striker Luka Jovic is back involved.

Zinedine Zidane's men head into the game on a run of one win in their last four matches, while City have won back-to-back games.

Leicester City boss Brendan Rodgers insisted his side were denied a "clear penalty" in Saturday's 1-0 defeat to Manchester City at the King Power Stadium.

The hosts had a couple of appeals turned down in the first half for Ederson's challenge on Kelechi Iheanacho and a possible handball against Kevin De Bruyne.

Whereas De Bruyne got away with blocking James Maddison's free-kick with his arm, the officials pointed to the spot at the other end for a similar incident involving Dennis Praet.

Rodgers agreed referee Paul Tierney was right to award the visitors a penalty, which Sergio Aguero failed to convert, but felt Leicester should also have been given one of their own.

"[Praet] has gone to block it and it's a penalty - we accept that. But you hope you get them for you as well," he told Sky Sports.

"But we're disappointed we didn't get a penalty - it's so clear. I felt it was the reason VAR was brought in. 

"The ball was going towards the goal, the corner, and Kevin De Bruyne stops it. He's lifted his arms up. 

"If you look at the reaction of the other players in the wall, their hands were down. It's handball."

Kasper Schmeichel kept the champions at bay for large parts of the game by producing a string of fine saves, including a penalty save to frustrate Aguero.

City have now missed their last four top-flight penalties, each by a different player, but they were rescued by substitute Gabriel Jesus' late strike three minutes after he was introduced.

"They are incredibly quick with Jamie Vardy, Harvey Barnes and Kelechi," Guardiola said at his post-match news conference.

"It was an incredible test for us. I'm so pleased for the victory."

Guardiola's side face Real Madrid on Wednesday for the first leg of their Champions League last-16 tie and the Catalan coach has been handed a big fitness boost.

Raheem Sterling has missed City's last two games with a hamstring injury, while Aymeric Laporte left the field early in the second half against Leicester, but both men could feature in Madrid.

"[Laporte] asked me to be substituted, but he's not injured," Guardiola said.

"He's been four months, five months injured, we can't forget that. He had to run a lot. It was different against West Ham, we could control it easier. But he's okay.

"Raheem is also much, much, much better. I think he'll be ready."

Clashes between teams managed by Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola have affected many a title race over the years, but pride might take precedence over Premier League points during Sunday's meeting between Tottenham and Manchester City.

Mourinho has lost more games in all competitions against teams coached by Guardiola than against any other manager, and he will be desperate to send City packing after Tottenham ended a torrid run of Premier League results with a 2-1 win over Norwich City.

But Spurs were far from convincing against the Canaries, Son Heung-min's 79th-minute winner sparing them the ignominy of a fifth consecutive winless league outing after a lacklustre performance at home to the division's bottom club.

City arrive at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in buoyant mood, meanwhile, having recovered from a disappointing December and put together a five-game unbeaten streak in the Premier League that included a 6-1 thrashing of Aston Villa.

The title looks beyond City given Liverpool's comfortable lead at the top of the table, but with third-placed Leicester City faltering, Guardiola will be keen for his men to tighten their grip on second and remain poised to close the gap at the summit should the Reds suffer an unlikely blip.

 

GUARDIOLA GUNNING FOR NORTH LONDON RECORD

No top-flight team have ever won six consecutive away matches against Arsenal and Tottenham, but if City claim three points against Spurs on Sunday, Guardiola's side will claim that record.

City have won on their past five trips to North London - enjoying as many victories as they claimed in their first 40 Premier League games at Arsenal and Spurs - and another happy day in the capital looks well within their reach.

Victory for the champions would see defender Aymeric Laporte break the record for most wins (43) in his first 50 Premier League appearances, currently shared by Didier Drogba, Arjen Robben and Ederson (all 42).

Kevin De Bruyne provided the assist as Sergio Aguero scored the winner in City's 1-0 win at Sheffield United last time out in the league, and the Belgium international has averaged an assist every 180 minutes in the Premier League - the best ratio in the competition's history.

But Tottenham also have a man in form in Dele Alli, who has had a hand in nine goals in 16 games in all competitions under Mourinho - three times as many as he had registered under Mauricio Pochettino this season (two goals, one assist in 10 appearances).

HEAD-TO-HEAD: PEP GUARDIOLA V JOSE MOURINHO

Spurs are the fifth team Mourinho has taken charge of against Guardiola as the two coaches prepare to do battle for the 23rd time in their managerial careers.

Mourinho has tasted victory in home games against Guardiola's teams just twice, getting one over his old nemesis when Inter beat Barcelona 3-1 in April 2010 and when Manchester United edged out City 1-0 in October 2016.

But Guardiola is unbeaten on the road in league fixtures against Mourinho, overseeing three victories and one draw against teams managed by the Spurs boss.

Only against Manuel Pellegrini (6) and Unai Emery (5) has Guardiola faced a manager more times on the road without losing a league game.

FORM GUIDE

City are yet to win three consecutive Premier League away games this season, but that will change if they claim maximum points in North London.

The champions are in a rich vein of form, winning six and drawing one of their past eight league games. Although they lost to Manchester United in the EFL Cup on Wednesday, City still advanced into the final on aggregate.

Guardiola will be relishing the prospect of a chance to condemn Spurs to a third defeat in seven home league games under Mourinho, who is struggling to shore up a leaky defence.

Tottenham have kept just two clean sheets in their past 19 Premier League matches, during which time they have scored 27 goals and conceded 26, but they will aim to make home advantage count against City.

Only Norwich (71 per cent) and Everton (70 per cent) have claimed a higher percentage of league points from home games this term than Spurs (68 per cent), who have not earned back-to-back top-flight wins since they beat Burnley and then Wolves in early December.

HISTORY SAYS…

There was a time when Tottenham looked forward to Premier League clashes with Manchester City, who they have beaten 23 times in the competition.

But none of the past six league meetings between the two sides have resulted in a Spurs victory, the Lilywhites claiming two draws and suffering four defeats since beating City 2-0 in October 2016.

That defeat was the only game in City's most recent 18 clashes with Tottenham in which they have failed to score.

Spurs twice came from behind to draw 2-2 at Etihad Stadium when these sides last met in the league, and if the points are shared again on Sunday, it will be the first season since 2003-04 to produce two top-flight draws between them.

Pep Guardiola does not appear overly concerned by the prospect of Liverpool shattering Manchester City's Premier League benchmarks, saying: "Records are there to be broken".

City have won the Premier League under Guardiola in the past two seasons and, while they were pushed all the way by Liverpool last term, the 2017-18 success was similar to the Reds' current tilt in its dominance.

Guardiola's side finished on a record 100 points, yet Liverpool have dropped only two points all season and look on course to surpass that total, while also troubling Arsenal's 49-match unbeaten run from 2003-04.

Asked about the prospect of Liverpool claiming such records ahead of City's FA Cup tie against Fulham, Guardiola said: "Yes, it can happen.

"Records are there to be broken. We broke it when someone said we couldn't, and sooner or later it will be broken again. History speaks clearly about that.

"To beat Liverpool? It is not easy. They have found a way to win games."

City welcomed back Aymeric Laporte for the first time since his August knee injury in midweek, playing 78 minutes against Sheffield United in the Premier League.

Guardiola is delighted to be able to call on his star centre-back once more but again stated Laporte will not fix all of City's problems.

"He was good [against Sheffield United]," Guardiola said. "He played a little bit more than 70 minutes for the first game.

"He played well, but he is not going to solve all the problems that we have. He is one more player that we have, and if we believe can use him, we will use him.

"He's a guy who helps us to do our build-up easier, and when that happens, we lose less balls, we concede fewer counter-attacks and that's why we are more stable. Basically it is that.

"He is a guy who is strong in the air, is fast, and has a special personality. His attributes help us to become a better team."

Guardiola, who said City would not be training abroad during the upcoming mid-season break, preferring to stay at home, confirmed winger Leroy Sane is now the club's only injury absence.

The return of Laporte would appear to see teenage defenders Eric Garcia and Taylor Harwood-Bellis moved further down the pecking order, but Guardiola does not anticipate either player going out on loan.

"It is impossible, Eric Garcia is not going to move," he said. "Harwood-Bellis, we didn't speak about that, but no. I think he is going to stay until the end of the season.

"Maybe we need him for the second team. I don't know if he has offers. If there came an offer from the Premier League, maybe we could consider it for his development as a player."

Aymeric Laporte was named in the starting line-up for Manchester City's Premier League trip to Sheffield United on Tuesday, completing his return from a knee injury.

City have been short at centre-back since Laporte sustained cartilage and meniscus damage in a 4-0 win over Brighton and Hove Albion on August 31, having failed to replace Vincent Kompany.

However, the 25-year-old was handed his first appearance in almost five months as one of seven changes made by Pep Guardiola for the game at Bramall Lane on Tuesday.

Laporte was set to partner Nicolas Otamendi at centre-back, with Oleksandr Zinchenko and Kyle Walker taking the full-back positions.

Fernandinho, who has been used in defence for much of the campaign, had an opportunity to return to midfield alongside Rodrigo.

Sergio Aguero started on the bench, with Gabriel Jesus leading the line and flanked by Riyad Mahrez and Raheem Sterling.

Ilkay Gundogan and Bernardo Silva dropped to the bench, while David Silva was not included in the matchday squad.

John Stones and Benjamin Mendy sustained muscle injuries in Saturday's 2-2 draw against Crystal Palace on Saturday and were not involved on Tuesday.

Aymeric Laporte should not be expected to single-handedly shore up Manchester City's leaky defence, Pep Guardiola has warned.

Sergio Aguero's late brace looked to have sealed a dramatic 2-1 comeback win over Crystal Palace in the Premier League on Saturday, but Wilfried Zaha provided a sting in the tail at the Etihad Stadium by tearing past John Stones and forcing an own-goal from Fernandinho.

The reigning Premier League champions, who now appear virtually certain to cede their crown to runaway leaders Liverpool, have only kept two clean sheets in their past 20 matches across all competitions.

Career midfielder Fernandinho has converted admirably to centre-back since Laporte suffered meniscus damage against Brighton and Hove Albion, while teenager Eric Garcia impressed at the heart of defence during recent home wins over Sheffield Untied and Everton.

But Stones laboured once more against Palace and Argentina international Nicolas Otamendi has produced similarly uneven form this term.

Former Athletic Bilbao favourite Laporte is back in light training with his team-mates but Guardiola, whose men face a mouth-watering Champions League last-16 showdown with Real Madrid next month, sought to temper expectations.

"We cannot expect that Aymeric is going to solve all of the problems," he said.

"We have to [have that] as a principle for everyone. He is getting better and the doctor is going to evaluate him in the [next] training session tomorrow and I am going to talk to him.

"When it will be possible and step by step to come in [he will] but after four or five months he will need time, so he will not be ready immediately to do it."

Asked whether Laporte could feature in next weekend's FA Cup tie at home to Fulham, Guardiola replied: "I don't know."

Laporte's countryman Benjamin Mendy has struggled at times after undergoing two knee surgeries in as many seasons.

But the ex-Monaco left-back showed signs of his best form against Palace, offering a varied attacking threat down the left flank and supplying a sumptuous cross for Aguero's headed second.

"He played really good and the final decisions in the final third were really good - passes, inside, outside and how many times to go up and down," Guardiola said.

"He did a good game and good crosses. He plays after two seasons injured, so his physical condition is getting better."

Pep Guardiola has been heartened to see Aymeric Laporte's return to full training but urged patience over the defender's first-team comeback. 

Manchester City have been without Laporte since August, when he suffered a knee injury against Brighton and Hove Albion.

The France centre-back, who joined from Athletic Bilbao in January 2018, required surgery but is coming to the end of his recovery. 

"He's training every day, he feels good after training and the day after he feels good, that is good news," Guardiola said ahead of City's trip to Aston Villa on Sunday. 

"I don't know when he'll be ready to play some games. He needs a little bit more time but he moves really well.

"The operation was good. We wait for the doctors to say he can start to play."

Guardiola, who allayed fears over an injury to Kevin De Bruyne following his substitution in the 3-1 EFL Cup semi-final first-leg win over Manchester United, is also eager to have Leroy Sane available again.

The Germany star was heavily linked with a move to Bayern Munich before he sustained his injury in the Community Shield against Liverpool, and rumours persist over his future.

However, Guardiola just wants him back in the team, along with Laporte.

"When we need to make movements in behind, Leroy is the best and of course Aymeric for being left footed, playing the left side and how good and how quick he settled in this league since he arrived," said Guardiola.

"Of course it's important for us, we will have to respect the process and when both will be ready, I will have to be thinking about to use them, we use them when I believe they must be used."

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