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."

Pep Guardiola is confident Fernandinho will sign a new deal at Manchester City – hailing him as one of the greatest players in the club's history.

The Brazil international, who joined the Premier League champions from Shakhtar Donetsk in 2013, is out of contract at the end of this season.

There has been speculation this could be Fernandinho's final campaign at the Etihad Stadium – something fuelled in part by Riyad Mahrez inadvertently suggesting the 34-year-old would follow David Silva in seeking pastures new when the winger took part in a Sky Sports Christmas quiz last month.

Silva's exit will continue a procession of club greats, after Vincent Kompany bade an emotional farewell last May, 12 and 24 months respectively after Yaya Toure and Pablo Zabaleta did likewise.

But Guardiola has no doubt he wants to see Fernandinho, who has impressed as an emergency centre-back this term, stick around.

"It’s a Txiki [Begiristain, City's director of football] issue, it’s not my issue," he told a news conference ahead of Saturday's FA Cup third-round tie against League Two Port Vale.

"Of course I want him to stay. I am so confident [he'll stay] and I am so delighted about our three-and-a-half years together.

"He does not have to convince me to stay longer. He convinced me on day one, three-and-a-half years ago when we started to work together.

"He doesn't need to do anything special to convince me. It is just [a matter of] his age, his desire and how he is going to finish the season. Many, many things.

"He knows exactly the opinion we have about him in this club over many, many years. He is one of the greatest players this club has had in its whole history."

Fernandinho being pressed into repeated service at centre-back is primarily down to Aymeric Laporte suffering a meniscus injury.

The former Athletic Bilbao defender has now resumed light training, having last played against Brighton and Hove Albion at the end of August.

"Yesterday, for the first time he trained with the team for 10 or 15 minutes. The rest individually and he's getting better," Guardiola said.

"He feels good and in the next weeks I think he will complete all the training sessions with us.

"I don't know when he will be ready. He will dictate, it depends on how he feels. He was more than four months out.

"The day after he trains he cannot [play] 90 minutes. The important thing is he didn't make a step back in these four or five months, the same cast as with Leroy [Sane].  That's really good and we are incredibly grateful for the physios and the guys who worked with him during this time."

Recent injuries to Nicolas Otamendi and John Stones have given academy centre-back Eric Garcia a chance in City's previous two league games against Sheffield United and Everton, with Guardiola hailing the 18-year-old's performances.

"He is a guy who doesn’t make mistakes. He is so clever and he is intelligent in his movement," he added.

"It is not easy for him to play on the left side [of the back three against Everton] because he is right-footed. I am not a nice guy, not giving him the opportunity to play on his right foot, but he played so well.

"He helped us with the problems that we have."

Ederson has recovered from illness but understudy Claudio Bravo customarily starts in goal for City's domestic cup games.

Pep Guardiola has a plan to make sure his Manchester City players cope with playing twice in less than 48 hours in December: "Go home, open the fridge and get inside."

The reigning champions have been dealt a tricky hand over the festive period following fixture changes for live television coverage, with their trip to Wolves now starting at 19:45 local time on December 27.

They then welcome Sheffield United to the Etihad Stadium on December 29, that game kicking off at 18:00, before a home match against Everton on January 1, 2020.

Asked what he can do to combat such a quick turnaround between travelling to Molineux and hosting the Blades before the turn of the year, Guardiola replied: "Players to the fridge. I'm not joking.

"Go home, open the fridge and get inside for 48 hours. See you at the Etihad Stadium [on December 29].

"When I open the fridge to make an omelette, maybe I can talk with my players. But apart from that, no way.

"It happened in my first season here. I think we played on December 31 at Anfield and then at home against Burnley [on January 2]."

Before needing to be concerned about Christmas plans, however, Guardiola and his squad must focus on closing the gap to a red-hot Liverpool side in the coming weeks.

After missing out by a solitary point in a thrilling title race in 2018-19, Jurgen Klopp's Reds have started the new Premier League season with eight successive wins.

City, in contrast, have suffered defeats to Norwich City and Wolves to sit eight points off the pace in second. However, Guardiola understands there is still a long way to go, particularly with Aymeric Laporte set to bolster the squad with a return from a knee injury early in 2020.

"For 11 years, no team in England has won back-to-back [titles]. It is difficult, of course it is," the former Barcelona and Bayern Munich boss told the media ahead of the trip to Crystal Palace on Saturday.

"But you have a rival that is unstoppable right now. Eight games, eight wins. We lost games, but in Spain the big clubs lost games, in Italy the big clubs lost games, here we are facing one team who are champions of Europe and didn't lose one game.

"It's difficult. In some games we could win but we didn't win. Our mistakes punished us a lot. During the season there are ups and downs. We try to get better and improve.

"From tomorrow [Saturday] and in the Champions League, we try to make an incredible step forward, to win the game against Atalanta [on Tuesday], then in February Laporte will be back, most of the players will be back.

"We will see what happens in the later stages. Normally, when you win what we have won the last two seasons and you arrive in March and April being there, after that it's more difficult to drop points. But, in the earliest stages of the season, sometimes it's normal."

Manchester City's title defence has not started according to plan, with the champions already trailing Liverpool by eight points.

Jurgen Klopp's side have won eight from eight in the Premier League, while City headed into the international break on the back of a surprise home defeat to Wolves.

For Pep Guardiola, City's defence has to be a huge concern, even though the former Barcelona boss has insisted the club will not be looking to replace the injured Aymeric Laporte in January.

Laporte is set to miss the majority of the season after sustaining an Anterior Cruciate Ligament injury in August, while Vincent Kompany has left a sizeable void in City's defence.

Nicolas Otamendi has been largely unconvincing, while John Stones has his own injury problems and Fernandinho – arguably the Premier League's best defensive midfielder – has had to fill in at the back.

Ahead of Saturday's trip to Selhurst Park to face Crystal Palace, we use Opta data to assess how Guardiola can patch up City's struggling defence.

 

RELIANCE ON OTAMENDI A CAUSE FOR CONCERN

Guardiola has not been helped by a spate of bad luck with injuries, especially with Laporte, who has been mightily impressive since his arrival from Athletic Bilbao in January 2018.

Stones, meanwhile, has been in and out of the side due to both injuries and form, with Kompany preferred for the run-in last season. Otamendi looked set to join Kompany in leaving the club in the off season, though has been a mainstay of City's back line, making seven league appearances and two more in the Champions League. 

The Argentine does boast a passing accuracy of 92.52 per cent, which is higher than Fernandinho or Laporte, while he has also lost possession 148 times fewer than the Frenchman.

While Otamendi has only featured in 25 Premier League matches since the start of last season, he does have a higher tackle, duel and aerial duel success rate than Laporte and only conceded 16 fouls.

However, the former Valencia man showed clear weaknesses in the defeat to Wolves, recklessly lunging in on Raul Jimenez in the build-up to the opener, while it was his mistake at Carrow Road which led to Norwich City's third goal in a 3-2 win for the Canaries.

Of the players who have played at the back for City since the start of 2018-19, only Otamendi (2) has made errors which directly resulted in a goal.

KOMPANY'S IMPACT UNDERESTIMATED?

City reportedly moved for Harry Maguire in the off season, only to baulk at Leicester City's asking price, which was eventually paid by cross-city rivals Manchester United.

However, the decision not to replace inspirational former captain Kompany, who scored a stunning goal against Leicester as he led City to the title last term, seemed a risky one.

City did not lose a single game in all competitions last season in which Kompany started, with the Belgian having been named in 13 Premier League line ups.

Kompany played 1,223 minutes in the top flight last term, making no errors resulting in a shot at goal, while managing an impressive pass accuracy of 93.07% behind only Stones in terms of City's defenders.

The 33-year-old lost possession 93 times, though, perhaps due to a lack of pace, did concede 17 fouls – more than Otamendi or Stones despite playing fewer games.

He was dribbled past by an opponent on only one occasion and, from the 18 matches he started in all competitions last season, City claimed 17 wins, conceding just 12 goals.

SETTLE ON STONES UNTIL JANUARY

The simple answer to City's problems is likely to get Laporte back fit and firing as soon as possible, given they have an 82 per cent win percentage with the 25-year-old starting in the Premier League since the start of last season, compared to 75% without.

However, for now Guardiola must find a defensive pairing he can stick with until January. Fernandinho and Otamendi have featured in the last three league matches, but against Wolves their lack of pace was exposed.

Stones should soon return to action and, though the England international's form has been criticised, his statistics make for promising reading.

The former Everton man has a tackle success rate of 75%, higher than any of City's other centre-backs, and has conceded just six fouls since the start of 2018-19.

If Stones can stay fit, he should be City's first-choice centre-back until the new year, with Otamendi and Fernandinho vying for the other spot.

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