The 19-year-old man of the match strolled through the Wembley mixed zone on Sunday evening wearing a beaming grin along with his winners' medal, only to receive one more instruction from his manager.

"Phil, you must!" said Pep Guardiola, gesturing towards the gaggle of waiting journalists, eagerly wanting a piece of Phil Foden.

But no sooner had he headed towards the microphones, the midfielder was told in no uncertain terms it was time to go right now as the team bus was ready to leave.

It meant Manchester City's coach driver had done something largely beyond Aston Villa for the duration of Sunday's EFL Cup final by stopping Foden from doing whatever he wanted. 

City continued their recent dominance of the competition with a third successive triumph thanks to first-half goals from Sergio Aguero and Rodri, before Mbwana Samatta pulled one back in the 41st minute for a valiant Villa.

It proved a day to savour for City's old guard. Aguero, Fernandinho and David Silva now have five winners' medals apiece from English football's mid-season final.

Club record goalscorer Aguero settled nerves after a scrappy start with a typically astute piece of poaching. Ever the man for the big occasion, the Argentina star has been directly involved in eight goals across 10 Wembley appearances, while Villa will be sick of the sight of a man boasting 10 strikes in his past six outings against them.

Within the context of Aymeric Laporte's injury struggles this season, Fernandinho has shifted seamlessly from defensive midfield lynchpin to become City's most reliable option at centre-back.

The 35-year-old typically provides an expert combination of aggression and poise while his rotating cast of partners cough up goal-causing mistakes.

Fernandinho's probing, purposeful passing from deep to get Guardiola's men back on the front foot early in the second half after John Stones' forlorn grapple with gravity in the build up to Samatta's powerful header ensured both sides of that equation were clearly evident at the national stadium.

Aguero and Fernandinho are under contract for 2021-22 but the current campaign amounts to a victory lap for the mercurial Silva, who will end a glorious decade in Manchester over the next three months.

Guardiola has frequently stated his plan for the club captain to symbolically pass the torch to Foden, who has waited diligently in the wings since his 2017 debut as the understudy to City's twinkling left-footed magician.

The realities of elite sport and the passage of time mean succession planning is rarely completely smooth, however, and the match against Villa often felt like Foden ripping the baton from his mentor's hand and tearing off on a journey mapped out in boyhood dreams.

Across 90 minutes in which Villa's refusal to go quietly was the main factor in City lacking the relentless rhythm that defines their best work, Foden was their most reliable outlet.

No-one else in their Hacienda-inspired black shirts led the dance as the teenager did, unquestionably the player most in tune with Guardiola's "take the ball, pass the ball" mantra when in opposition territory.

Foden completed 90 per cent of his 41 passes in the Villa half, set against 87.5 per cent of 32 from Silva, who he also outstripped in overall touches (71 to 57) and tenacity – (7/10 duels won to 3/8).

All the unmistakable Silva visuals remain – gliding into pockets of space in front of defenders and receiving the ball with eloquent mischief, all while shuffling easily as if in his favourite pair of carpet slippers.

And yet, each refined movement feels the tiniest split-second slower. Opponents can now generally close out those shafts of light where the 34-year-old used to thread his most delightful passes.

Foden became the player most familiar with the whites of Aston Villa eyes, daring them not to blink. One particularly velvety touch on the end of Oleksandr Zinchenko's raking 29th-minute pass almost brought a goal to savour.

Guardiola talked up the youngster's goal threat afterwards and no City player could match his five attempts on the day. Although not noted for his aerial ability, Foden's 20th-minute knockdown for Aguero means he now has seven assists to go with a pair of goals in 10 competitive starts in 2019-20.

Even without those impressive numbers, the evidence presented to 82,149 spectators was enough. On a gala day for City's most influential players of the past 10 years, Foden made a statement of intent for the decade to come.

Fernandinho warned Manchester City they would face a top-four fight in the Premier League if their recent struggles continued.

Pep Guardiola's men have been left closer to fifth than first after failing to win two of their past three Premier League games, including Sunday's 2-0 loss to Tottenham.

The two-time defending champions are 22 points adrift of league leaders Liverpool and 14 clear of fifth-placed Spurs.

But Fernandinho said City could face a top-four battle if their recent run of poor form continued.

"We have to focus on the Premier League too, not only on the other competitions," he said.

"If we don't carry on we can be dropped out the top four, so we need to qualify for the Champions League next season. We will focus on the cups and the Champions League too, but we are professionals.

"We need to show our character until the end of the season and finish the league in the best possible way."

While they are well behind in the league, City are in the EFL Cup final and remain alive in the Champions League and FA Cup.

But Fernandinho feels City's inability to take their chances has proven costly.

"During the last four seasons, we have been playing this way. In the last two seasons we were incredible, we won the Premier League twice, we got 198 points over two seasons, we didn't change that much," he said.

"We keep going the same way, creating chances but if you don't score goals, you can't win the games.

"We need to find the solutions, starting tomorrow in training and continuing on the next game against West Ham at home.

"We have to revert the situation and keep winning."

Dreams of Premier League glory began to feel like an inevitability at Anfield as Liverpool beat Manchester United on a weekend that saw Leicester City, Chelsea and Manchester City drop points.

Jurgen Klopp's side dispatched their old rivals with goals from Virgil van Dijk and Mohamed Salah, leaving Reds supporters full of confidence after Burnley came from behind to beat third-placed Leicester 2-1 at Turf Moor.

There was a surprise result at St. James' Park on Saturday, Frank Lampard's Chelsea dominating for long periods against Newcastle United but succumbing to a late Isaac Hayden goal in a 1-0 defeat.

There were late goals at the Etihad Stadium, where Sergio Aguero thought he had won it with a brace, only for Fernandinho to put through his own net in a 2-2 draw with Crystal Palace.

The weekend's Opta data offers detailed insights into the stories behind those results, as well as Wolves' dramatic 3-2 comeback victory over Southampton at St. Mary's.

 

ANFIELD FULL OF HOPE AFTER BACK-TO-BACK HOME WINS OVER UNITED

They are no longer saying it quietly: Liverpool fans firmly believe the title is theirs after watching their side beat United on Sunday.

The victory marked the first time Liverpool have claimed consecutive home Premier League wins over the Red Devils since winning three in a row between September 2008 and March 2011 and there was an air of invulnerability around Anfield at the final whistle.

Liverpool have taken 91 points from a possible 93 in their last 31 Premier League matches, winning 30 and drawing just one, while United have now lost nine of their last 16 top-flight away games (W3 D4 L9).

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's men have failed to score in eight of those games and they gave Liverpool goalkeeper Alisson little to do despite creating a number of goalscoring opportunities.

Alisson kept himself busy by becoming the first Reds keeper to assist a Premier League goal since March 2010, when Pepe Reina laid on a goal against Sunderland.

 

 


LATE HAYDEN WINNER LEAVES LAMPARD'S BLUES REELING

Chelsea have lost as many Premier League games this season as they did in the entirety of 2018-19 after Hayden scored in the 94th minute to snatch victory for Newcastle over Lampard's inconsistent Blues.

Four of Chelsea's eight league defeats this season have come in their last eight matches and supporters making the trip to Tyneside had reason to be fearful of their side coming unstuck.

Chelsea have now lost five of their last seven top-flight trips to St. James' Park but defeats to teams managed by Steve Bruce have been a rare occurrence - this was only the second time he has beaten the Blues in 23 games against them as a manager (D5 L16).

Prior to Hayden's strike, Newcastle had not scored a last-minute winner since Ayoze Perez struck against Tottenham in December 2015.

It was Hayden's third Premier League goal and came in his 70th appearance in the competition, his last coming in February 2019 against Wolves.

 

POROUS CITY PAY FOR ERRORS AT THE BACK

City came from behind to lead with three minutes left in their clash with Palace but conceded at home in the Premier League for the 12th time this season as the Eagles secured a point at the death.

Pep Guardiola's men have now conceded as many goals at home in the league as they did in the whole of last season and this was their third draw of the 2019-20 season - in their title-winning campaign last term they only drew twice.

Aguero's double inside five minutes marked the Argentina international's 250th and 251st goals in all competitions for the club in his 360th appearance, but Fernandinho became the first City player to score a Premier League own-goal since Nicolas Otamendi against Huddersfield Town in November 2017.

The scoring was opened by new signing Cenk Tosun, who netted in the 39th minute to become the fourth Turkish player to reach 10 Premier League goals after Muzzy Izzet, Tuncay Sanli and Tugay.

Palace are ninth in the table after four consecutive draws - the last time they drew as many Premier League games in a row was in 1992-93 when they started the season with the same sequence.

 

WOLVES EMERGING AS COMEBACK SPECIALISTS

When Raul Jimenez scored from the penalty spot at St. Mary's he pulled Wolves level after they had been two goals down, but there was even better to follow for Nuno Espirito Santo's men.

Jimenez scored again in the 76th minute, taking his tally to 19 goals in all competitions this season and clinching three points for Wolves that means they have now picked up 18 from losing positions in the Premier League this season - seven more than any other side.

Falling behind after 15 minutes to a Jan Bednarek goal was nothing new for the visitors, who have conceded first in 16 league games this season including each of their last seven in a row.

But Jimenez has been directly involved in 28 goals this season and after Shane Long netted his 54th Premier League goal to make it 2-0 to the Saints, Pedro Neto scored for the second time in his last three league appearances to tee up the Mexico international for a memorable brace.

Jimenez now has 19 goals and nine assists to his name in all competitions this season, giving him more direct goal involvements than any other top-flight player in 2019-20.

Fernandinho's stoppage-time own goal gave Crystal Palace a 2-2 draw at Manchester City, while Wolves fought back from two down to beat Southampton and Norwich City claimed a huge Premier League win on Saturday.

Cenk Tosun's first Palace goal put the London club in front, but Aguero equalised with his 250th for City eight minutes from time before putting the second-placed champions in front at the Etihad Stadium.

Pep Guardiola's side were unable to see it out, though, as Fernandinho turned the ball into his own net to leave City 13 points behind leaders Liverpool, who play Manchester United in one of their two games in hand on Sunday.

Resurgent Saints looked set to move into the top half when they were two up at St Mary's Stadium, but Raul Jimenez's double after a Pedro Neto strike moved Wolves up to sixth.

Norwich striker Teemu Pukki scored the only goal against second-bottom Bournemouth, who had defender Steve Cook sent off for a spectacular save, while fellow strugglers Aston Villa drew 1-1 at Brighton and Hove Albion.

John Fleck rescued a 1-1 draw for Sheffield United at Arsenal, while it was the same scoreline in the clash between David Moyes' West Ham and his former club Everton.

 

CITY SLIP UP DESPITE AGUERO BRACE 

Palace claimed a stunning 3-2 win at City last season and looked like picking up another three points until Aguero intervened with a late brace.

New boy Tosun headed the Eagles into a first-half lead with his first goal for the club, but the leading overseas scorer in Premier League history levelled to take his City tally to 250 and struck again with time running out.

VAR overturned a penalty decision after Jairo Riedewald was penalised for handball before Aguero equalised and there was more drama when Wilfried Zaha squared the ball, with Fernandinho turning it into his own net.

 

WOLVES BRING SAINTS BACK DOWN TO EARTH

Saints, on a high after five wins and a draw from their last six games, appeared to be making further strides up the table after Jan Bednarek and Shane Long put them in command at half-time.

But Wolves were transformed after the break, Neto giving them hope and the clinical making Jimenez no mistake from the penalty spot following a VAR intervention for Jack Stephens' challenge on Jonny.

Jimenez was on target again to win in 13 minutes from time, Adama Traore setting the striker up with his second assist, to give Wolves a first win in five in all competitions.

 

CHERRIES PAY THE PENALTY FOR IMPULSIVE COOK STOP

Norwich claimed their first top-flight win since November courtesy of a Pukki penalty as Bournemouth endured another miserable afternoon at Carrow Road.

Pukki converted from 12 yards 33 minutes in after Cherries defender Steve Cook made an acrobatic one-handed stop to keep out Kenny McLean's goal-bound shot.

Cook was given his matching orders and there was no way back for Bournemouth, who have picked up only four points from their last 12 games, as Norwich held on despite Ben Godfrey's dismissal 13 minutes from time.

Fernandinho is close to signing a new deal with Manchester City, the 34-year-old has revealed.

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

City boss Pep Guardiola has spoken of his desire to keep Fernandinho at the Etihad Stadium and he appears set to get his way.

"When I renewed at the end of 2018, we put a clause that if I reached certain goals, my contract would be renewed automatically," the player told ESPN Brasil.

"Conversations have already started, we talked about it last month. I am close to reaching those goals and renewing the contract, but we can only confirm it after signing."

With City suffering injury problems in defence this season, Fernandinho has often operated at centre-back, which he has been happy to do.

"It's good as long as you can be at the highest level," he said. "Playing in a different position opens up the range of learning.

"In defence, I see the game in a different way. It has been very cool and the guidance I have received from Pep has been very good.

"At 34, playing in the Premier League is a source of pride. Many, many players wanted to be experiencing what I am experiencing."

Fernandinho played the full match in City's 3-1 EFL Cup semi-final first-leg win over rivals Manchester United on Tuesday and is likely to feature at Aston Villa in the Premier League on Sunday.

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.

Makeshift centre-back Fernandinho denied his move from midfield to defence was the reason for Manchester City's mediocre run of results.

Pep Guardiola's men have drawn or lost three of their past five Premier League matches and sit 17 points adrift of leaders Liverpool going into Sunday's away game against Arsenal. 

The decision not to replace Vincent Kompany has created headaches, particularly after Aymeric Laporte underwent knee surgery in September.

Fernandinho, 34, was forced to vacate his natural role at the base of midfield to plug the hole in central defence.

But the Brazilian insisted the change had not been a major issue, despite City's failure to keep a clean sheet in 10 matches across all competitions.

"The job you do at the back is so important as you help to defend and attack," said Fernandinho, as quoted by the Daily Mail.

"The culture is that whoever scores goals gets the spotlight but it depends on everyone.

"You have to protect your defensive line and, when you have the ball, try to give players in front the ball to attack and create chances.

"I don't think I am being missed in midfield. Rodri is playing really well there. Of course, we are a little bit different but he's doing really well.

"In general the team plays well, the detail made the difference [in the loss to Manchester United] last week and of course we have to improve and react as soon as possible, and we have an opportunity on Sunday."

Fernandinho admitted the fallout from the 2-1 derby defeat to United had taken its toll.

"It's been really tough, really hard for us," he said.

"If you take the statistics, we were better, in control of the game, but the result counts in the end. We have to go again. It's our opportunity to show it was an accident against United.

"We conceded two easy goals and it makes the game more difficult for us. We couldn't find a way to react.

"Arsenal like to play football, we like to play football. It will be a nice game for the fans."

Gabriel Jesus credited Manchester City and Brazil team-mate Fernandinho for helping him to get back on the goal trail.

Jesus netted an impressive brace in City's 4-1 Premier League win over Burnley on Tuesday, ending a run of 10 matches without a goal for club and country that featured two missed penalties.

A pair of assured finishes suggested a return to form for the 22-year-old, who is expected to lead the line for Pep Guardiola's men once again in Saturday's Manchester derby, as Sergio Aguero remains sidelined with a thigh injury.

"I had a talk with Fernandinho. He has been helping me a lot. He has always been very important since I arrived at the club," Jesus said.

"With his experience throughout his career, he is giving me advice. The day before the game, we had a nice chat.

"He always looks after all of us, especially the young ones. As a countryman, he came to talk to me and tell me to remain calm.

"I was calm, more confident and I managed to score two goals, that was very important to me."

Following Jesus' brace, City's record signing Rodri crowned his best performance for the club with a blistering 22-yard strike.

The Spain international turned in an accomplished display in the holding midfield position Fernandinho – now operating at centre-back – had made his own under Guardiola.

Ahead of Wednesday's Merseyside derby between Liverpool and Everton, City cut the deficit between themselves and Jurgen Klopp's league leaders to eight points.

A run of one win in five matches across all competitions before their trip to Turf Moor meant it was a victory worth celebrating.

"We needed this victory,” Rodri told reporters. "It was a good performance.

"Sometimes when you lose or draw, your confidence can go down, and after this victory, we were really having a party in the dressing room because we needed it to bring up the mentality and confidence of the team.

"Everyone is human, and when you don't get the results, you need to get people's confidence up. This was an important victory. We will fight until the end because that is our mentality and identity."

Pep Guardiola insisted Manchester City's squad harbour no doubts over Gabriel Jesus' ability to step up and fill the void left by the injured Sergio Aguero.

Jesus ended a five-match scoreless run in the Premier League with City's first two goals in a 4-1 rout of Burnley at Turf Moor on Tuesday.

Aguero has missed the past two league matches with a thigh injury sustained in a 2-1 win over Chelsea, and is also set to be out for the Manchester derby on Saturday.

However, Guardiola is adamant none of City's players or coaching staff had any concerns over Jesus' form.

"Of course it's not easy [replacing Aguero] but the team doesn't have doubts about him," Guardiola told Amazon Prime.

"As a striker sometimes you score, sometimes not. We need the quality of the players up front to make the difference.

"Of course we need him. The strikers are there to score goals and we need him. His effort, commitment, which is always there, but of course, strikers like him and Sergio live for goals, it was important.

"We played a good game. Controlled them, didn't concede much, except one action in the first half and a goal in the last minutes. We played really well. The quality of our players made the difference."

Jesus got things started for City with a sensational strike midway through the first half, before the Brazil forward prodded home from Bernardo Silva's cross shortly after the break.

Rodri – who was impeccable in central midfield – slammed in a brilliant third, before substitute Riyad Mahrez helped himself to a 50th Premier League goal late on, although there was still time for Robbie Brady to snatch a consolation for Burnley.

Guardiola again stuck with Fernandinho in defence, though City's boss has no plans to change that tactic any time soon.

"We are open to accept [media] opinions, but we know the quality of the players much better than all of you, and know what the team needs in this moment," Guardiola said.

"Fernandinho for his quality, his personality and his character is an important player and I like him to play [in defence]. I said it when we lost games and I say it when we win. When we win it's a perfect decision, when we lose it's a bad decision.

"[Rodri] was incredible, in his position, offensive, defensive, so clever. He has much better, the picture of our game, a picture of the players where they are.

"Fantastic player, so young, and he's adapted perfectly to this country. He's got it. He's a guy who wants to learn, listen, every training session he's ready and that's why always we can count on him without a problem."

City's win takes them – temporarily at least – above Leicester City and into second place, though they are still eight points shy of Liverpool, who welcome struggling Merseyside rivals Everton to Anfield on Wednesday.

"We are far away [from Liverpool] so we cannot think about that," Guardiola said when asked if City had demonstrated the quality needed to stay in the title race.

"Our level was so good in most games. I don't have the feeling we played bad in any single game. Sometimes you need something more and there are situations we cannot control. In general the level of the team I am more than satisfied."

Rodri is confident he could become an accomplished centre-back for Manchester City - with midfield colleague Fernandinho having already impressed in a backline role.

Spain international Rodri joined City from Atletico Madrid in a club-record deal in the close season, and an injury crisis meant the midfielder was deployed at the heart of defence against Crystal Palace last month.

Fernandinho was alongside Rodri, the Brazilian having spent much of the campaign in defence following the departure of club captain Vincent Kompany and with Aymeric Laporte suffering a long-term injury.

Rodri drew confidence from the 2-0 victory at Selhurst Park, encouraged his attributes would be well suited to playing the role again in Pep Guardiola's team.

"It was my first time," he told reporters of the Palace game. "But when you look at centre-back, I don't think it is different from holding midfield.

"You have many same qualities; you have to be strong, good in the air and, here at City, good with your feet.

"Of course, it is another position. You have things to learn as you are the last in the line. For me, it was great to learn that sometimes you can play in other positions and it is good to feel other positions.

"I spoke with Guardiola; he was confident to put me in that position and I need some matches, but I fit in that position.

"This position is new for me. For Fernandinho, I think he is doing great performances at centre-back.

"He is top level now in that position, so we need to keep going to keep doing things well and he is doing that."

Rodri revealed manager Guardiola, as a former midfielder, had been able to help his adjustment to the defensive demands of the Premier League.

"We talk many times," Rodri said. "I think football has changed a lot in the last few years.

"Of course, he always tries to help me with my defensive side; be in a good position for the second balls and with the ball, try to read what is going on in the match, such as where are the spaces.

"I think that's the most important thing as a midfielder playing in this team."

Pep Guardiola is eager for Fernandinho to remain in Manchester City's defence, even if the decision draws criticism.

Fernandinho has been used primarily as an emergency centre-back this season, with Aymeric Laporte out injured while John Stones and Nicolas Otamendi have struggled with fitness and consistency issues.

The Brazil international has often looked City's most solid option at the back in Laporte's absence, despite the fact he is primarily a midfielder.

And Guardiola has no plans to alter Fernandinho's role if his other midfield options stay fit.

"If Rodri and Gundogan are fit, I don't think so. I like Fernandinho there, in that position [centre-back]. I like it," Guardiola told reporters when asked if he would move the 34-year-old back into the centre of the park.

"I know he can play there, but we have Gundogan, I trust him a lot, and Rodri.

"Since I arrived here we were looking for a holding midfielder in the first season. Fernandinho was good [against Chelsea] because we won.

"If we lose, he played s***, I know that, but we won. So at Anfield he was the best central defender we have there, but [apparently] it was a disaster. I know how it works, this job.

"He was incredible at Anfield, he was incredible [against Chelsea]. He is so fast, in our build-up he's perfect.

"It is important to be aggressive as the midfielder but to be quick with the ball and to find solutions in smaller spaces. Gundogan has that quality. That's why we look [at him] in other situations."

While City's injury problems have come mainly in defence so far this season, Guardiola harbours concerns over Sergio Aguero, who was forced off late on in the 2-1 win over Chelsea on Saturday.

However, Guardiola has no doubts Gabriel Jesus – who has scored five goals in all competitions this season – can fill the void should Aguero miss an extended period of time.

"Gabriel has made one of the best starts this season. If Sergio cannot play in the next games, we will see, Gabriel will be of course our option," Guardiola said.

"[Raheem] Sterling can play also in that position but Gabriel is going to play there of course."

In the past six meetings between Manchester City and Liverpool in major competitions Pep Guardiola used notably different tactical setups on each occasion.

Defensive problems with a 3-5-2 despite a 5-0 win over the 10-man Reds in September 2017 prompted a switch to his tried and trusted 4-3-3 as City swept all before them on the way to a 100-point haul and Premier League glory in 2017-18.

Well, almost all. Liverpool won a thriller 4-3 on Merseyside in the January of that campaign – persuading Guardiola to select a diamond midfield for the first leg of a Champions League quarter-final three months later.

That didn't work either, as City were ransacked 3-0 and were unable to turn the tie around despite an all-or-nothing 3-1-4-2 line-up tearing into the return leg at the Etihad Stadium with gusto.

Last season it was out with the cavalier and in with control, whether that was Bernardo Silva playing in a deeper central midfield position during a 0-0 draw in Liverpool or Aymeric Laporte playing on the left of a defence able to pivot from a four to a three in a gripping 2-1 triumph in Manchester.

City will search for a first Anfield win in 16-and-a-half years on Sunday, with Liverpool's six-point lead at the top of the Premier League table compromising their ambitions of a third straight title.

Ederson this week joined an injury list featuring Aymeric Laporte, Leroy Sane, David Silva and Oleksandr Zinchenko, meaning an even taller order for Guardiola against the most persistently challenging adversary of his coaching career.

Here, we look at how Guardiola might approach his latest crack at the Klopp conundrum.

4-4-2, 1-4-4-1 – Guardiola's 2019-20 shape experiments

During August's Community Shield encounter against Liverpool, where a typically tight game went City's way on penalties after a 1-1 draw, Guardiola debuted a tweak to his 4-3-3. One of the attacking midfielders – in this instance Kevin De Bruyne – would press high and close to the centre forward, forming a 4-4-2 shape without the ball.

Ostensibly, this ploy has been designed for an aging David Silva to be able to press in a more economical fashion. The master playmaker is likely to miss out at Anfield with a muscular injury, however, and namesake Bernardo seemed a good fit for the role during the first half against Atalanta.

The Portugal international's positioning allowed him to play an astute pass to create Raheem Sterling's opener after the goalscorer won back possession with an interception.

Expect to see more of that when the hosts have the ball, while a new configuration when building play from the back might be used to try and neutralise Liverpool's formidable press.

Ederson's supreme ability with the ball at his feet is simply not replicated by Claudio Bravo, despite the Camp Nou credentials of the man who will deputise for City's injured Brazil international.

This will undoubtedly compromise the construction of the visitors' attacks on Sunday, meaning Fernandinho's accelerated progression from makeshift to mainstay at centre-back is likely to be locked in.

A notable ploy in the games against Crystal Palace away and Atalanta at home, when Guardiola paired Fernandinho with fellow defensive midfielder Rodri in the heart of defence, was one of the centre-backs moving alongside the holding midfielder when City started their build-up.

This created another passing option for the goalkeeper and deeper centre-back and amounted roughly to a 1-4-4-1 shape.

Fernandinho's superb passing range and John Stones' smooth style being suited to this approach means there is another argument for Nicolas Otamendi being the odd man out in defence, before considering his ranking alongside Bravo in the accident-prone stakes.

A time for Foden?

Ever since his maiden first-team appearance two years ago, the understandable clamour for boyhood City fan Phil Foden to feature more frequently has steadily grown.

The difference this season is a case can be made beyond romanticism and the importance of the 19-year-old's development; in certain matches and situations, City look better with Foden in the side

He dazzled for the most part when he started the 5-1 win over Atalanta, only to blot his good work with a pair of needless late bookings. That red card is a reason for Guardiola to stick with more tried and tested names, but he cited the England Under-21 star's box-to-box capabilities as the reason for his selection and frequent success against the Serie A side.

The playmaker's presence lends a dynamism to City's midfield that was notably lacking from this season's Premier League defeats to Norwich City and Wolves, and meeting Liverpool's verve and energy head on feels like a must.

Guardiola's midweek trident of Gundogan, Bernardo Silva and De Bruyne might well have been road tested with Anfield in mind, but throwing Foden into a high-stakes encounter – as when he scored the winner in last season's vital 1-0 victory over Tottenham at the Etihad Stadium – is being given strong consideration.

"Phil Foden has a great stamina capacity, a great thing against Liverpool," a source close to Guardiola told Omnisport before David Silva's injury made Foden's path to the first XI theoretically more straightforward.

"I think City are not interested in a crazy match versus Liverpool, but to try to be in control of the ball. But finally, that [picking Foden] is the crucial decision around Pep's match plan."

 

Aguero or Jesus… or both?

Sergio Aguero has started 2019-20 in typically prolific form, scoring 13 times in 14 appearances, despite sometimes appearing to be operating shy of top gear.

At the same time, Gabriel Jesus is also enjoying a strong run of form and, given Guardiola's frequently stated admiration for the Brazil striker's high-pressing, there could be a temptation to switch his attacking spearhead.

However, as separate as it remains from what he brings in open play, Jesus' feeble penalty at San Siro will not have helped his case. Also, Aguero's pedigree in big games – even allowing for the anomaly of him never finding the net at Anfield – surely sways the argument in his favour.

Jesus' revival after an underwhelming 2018-19 came playing on the right-hand side of Brazil's attack. Guardiola has not played Aguero and Jesus together in the same 4-3-3 forward line with any frequency since the early months of 2017-18 and a bold Jesus-Aguero-Sterling frontline would certainly raise eyebrows on Merseyside.

It could also cause plenty of problems. Nevertheless, Bernardo Silva's tireless work rate to negate Andy Robertson or Riyad Mahrez looking to atone a wretched penalty miss of his own on the same ground 13 months ago remain far more likely options on Guardiola's right flank.

Omnisport's predicted Manchester City line-up to face Liverpool: Bravo; Walker, Fernandinho, Stones, Mendy; Gundogan, De Bruyne, Foden; Bernardo Silva, Aguero, Sterling.

Fernandinho believes Manchester City showed the battling qualities they will need to end their Anfield hoodoo during the second half of Wednesday's eventful 1-1 Champions League draw against Atalanta.

Pep Guardiola's side led 1-0 at the interval thanks to Raheem Sterling's sublime seventh-minute opener and should have made their superiority weigh more heavily, with Gabriel Jesus dragging a dismal penalty wide.

But Ederson was withdrawn before the restart due to a thigh injury and substitute goalkeeper Claudio Bravo's first task was to pluck Mario Pasalic's emphatic 49th-minute header from his net.

City struggled to regain their earlier rhythm as Gian Piero Gasperino's men found a frenetic and effective tempo, and Bravo's outing got worse when he was sent off for charging out of his area to foul Josip Ilicic.

That meant Kyle Walker being introduced as an emergency keeper – the right-back's tentative save from Ruslan Malinovskiy's free-kick bringing chants of "England's number one" from the travelling supporters at San Siro.

City held out for a 1-1 draw that left them five points clear at the top of Group C, their progress to the last 16 virtually assured as attention turns towards Sunday's mouth-watering Premier League showdown with Liverpool.

Jurgen Klopp's league leaders are six points ahead of the reigning champions, who last won at Anfield in 2003.

"I think the main thing was the mentality of the guys," said Fernandinho, who was again deployed at centre-back. "In difficult situations like this we have to stick together and we did.

"This is important because we are building a team to be champions and sometimes to be champions you have to play games like this.

"Now it is good because everybody is understanding what we are building."

Guardiola reported Ederson's thigh injury was "not big" but he is unsure whether his influential number one will be available to face Liverpool.

Irrespective of whether his fellow Brazil international recovers in time, Fernandinho feels City will try to end 16-and-a-half years of Merseyside frustration with confidence.

"The mentality is always try to win the game," he added.

"There's always a first time in life, no? We are searching for this first time to win at Anfield. I am confident we can go there and try to win the game.

"Of course, we will see with Ederson's situation. We are going to train and the medical staff are going to check him and we are going to see if he will be fit or not for Sunday."

For a player who built his reputation as a youthful Rolls-Royce of a centre-back, there has been a jarring element of slapstick around Manchester City's John Stones of late.

During the closing stages of an eventually comfortable 3-0 win over Aston Villa, the England international blocked a shot flush in the face and had to be groggily helped to his feet by City's medical staff.

It was a scene that suited a cracking black eye collected at the end of last week's win at Crystal Palace.

Similarly, Stones sporting the shiner when Pep Guardiola tore into him for not putting his shin pads on quickly enough to replace an injured Rodri during the midweek thrashing of Atalanta created something of a class-clown vibe.

The 25-year-old was back in City's starting line-up against Villa for the first time since his second ill-timed thigh injury of a season yet to click fully into gear.

Stones' first setback denied him the chance to put down an early marker in City's post-Vincent Kompany era. Then, in September, he followed knee-injury victim Aymeric Laporte into the treatment room.

Concerns about match fitness would have been natural, but the sight of Fernandinho and Rodri – two career midfielders – starting ahead of the specialist Stones over the past week spoke of a discontentment on Guardiola's part that goes deeper than how quickly the Yorkshireman is able to dress himself.

Despite once famously commending Stones' testicular fortitude, Guardiola has shifted the man he made his first major defensive signing at City to the margins during their back-to-back triumphant title run-ins.

At the end of 2018-19, he started two games in all competitions after limping out of a 1-0 Premier League win over Bournemouth at the start of March. An unprecedented domestic treble arrived with Stones relegated to the supporting cast.

Circumstances have now aligned to make this a pivotal moment in the career of a player who should be coming into his prime.

Kompany left, Harry Maguire did not join, Laporte got injured and Nicolas Otamendi – who will never appear less accident-prone than Stones, even if the black eye lasts a lifetime – suffered a bad back.

Rodri pulled a hamstring and Fernandinho's introduction to the heart of defence, although impressive for the most part this week, cannot really escape a penalty conceded in the first half versus Atalanta and an avoidable red card against Villa in the final analysis.

Battered and visibly bruised, Stones is Guardiola's last man standing, with a season-defining trip to Anfield on the horizon.

His felt like a mixed bag against Villa. Before second-half goals from Raheem Sterling, David Silva and Ilkay Gundogan ensured City's ambitious and pugnacious visitors ran out of road, Stones almost gave them the lead.

A pass straight to John McGinn recalled those awfully absent-minded moments that still come too frequently, such as when England's Nations League Finals ambitions came crashing down against Netherlands in June.

A brilliant Ederson save and the scrambling efforts of Fernandinho and Joao Cancelo bailed him out. Stones' own brave block shortly afterwards ricocheted against his arm and survived a VAR review.

Around all that, the centre-back won all five of his duels - proving to be quietly dominant in the air – conceded no fouls (take note, Fernandinho), made five clearances, won possession four times and completed 91.9 per cent of his passes. It amounts to a performance he can and must build on.

Into stoppage time and after the face block, McGinn's shot on the rebound bounced back off the post and hit City's number five – stationed in the goalmouth – on the back of the knee. The ball spun through his legs and into Ederson's grateful grasp. Perhaps Stones' luck is finally starting to turn.

Fernandinho has lauded team-mate Ederson as a complete goalkeeper after the Brazil international made two crucial saves in Manchester City's win at Crystal Palace.

City lost to Wolves before the international break but were in dominant form at Selhurst Park – quickfire goals from Gabriel Jesus and David Silva just reward for their display.

However, Pep Guardiola's side – who, temporarily at least, closed the gap between themselves and Liverpool to five points with Saturday's triumph – failed to add to their tally; Kevin De Bruyne, Raheem Sterling and Jesus squandering chances to put the result beyond doubt.

De Bruyne also had what looked a strong penalty appeal turned down, much to Guardiola's frustration, and City might have been made to pay if not for Ederson's heroics.

Having tipped Christian Benteke's header onto the bar, the former Benfica man made another fine stop to deny Wilfried Zaha in the closing stages and Fernandinho was full of praise for his compatriot.

"I think we had a very good performance, we created a lot of chances to score many more goals," said the 34-year-old, who started at centre-back alongside fellow midfielder Rodri.

"Ederson made also two important saves. If you look at the game overall, we deserved to win from the beginning. We went for it, we found the spaces, we missed a lot of chances.

"[Ederson] has shown the player he is since the day he arrived. When the club signed him, in the first training sessions, I was impressed with him.

"He's a goalkeeper and the club signed him, first of all, to save, but it's a great bonus that he can play with his feet, the quality he has to play with his feet is amazing. To me, he is a very complete goalkeeper."

With his opener, striker Jesus took himself on to 50 goals during his time at City, becoming the seventh player to achieve that milestone while being coached by Guardiola.

Jesus has now scored in his past seven starts for the club in all competitions, but Fernandinho insists no player can be sure of their place in Guardiola's line-up.

"It might be surprising but not any player has his spot guaranteed in the starting 11," he added.

"You have to prove yourself in every training session, the players know that and you have to be ready any time an opportunity comes.

"You need to understand what the manager wants and what the team needs from you. [Jesus] has understood and every time he is on the pitch, he tries to give his best, no matter if he plays 90 or 10 minutes."

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