Former Manchester United captain Bryan Robson would like to see Jack Grealish make a move to Old Trafford.

Aston Villa star Grealish has been linked with the Red Devils in the past 18 months but there has yet to be a concerted effort to sign him.

However, with the future of Paul Pogba unclear beyond this season, talk has again emerged that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer could look to Grealish as a possible replacement for the France star.

The England international has created a competition-high 55 goalscoring chances in the Premier League in 2020-21 from only 15 appearances.

The 25-year-old has become integral to Villa's improved performances this term, making 11 per cent of all of their passes and drawing 73 fouls, the most of any player in the division.

Former skipper Robson, twice a league champion with United, thinks Ole Gunnar Solskjaer would be making a smart move if he added Grealish to his squad.

"It was a good decision giving [Jack Grealish] the [Aston Villa] captaincy," he told Stats Perform. "I think it's made him a bit more mature.

"He's a powerful player. He's quite a strong boy and he's quick and the way he can sort of go either way past people, he's always going to be a danger and that's why he gets so many free-kicks. Him and Villa have been terrific this season.

"He's been linked with us but those decisions, thank goodness, are with Ole and the board of directors. I wouldn't mind seeing Jack Grealish in a Manchester United shirt. I don't know whether the staff at Old Trafford fancy him, much as you'd like to see him play for your club."

United face Fulham on Wednesday looking for a win that would take them back to the top of the Premier League.

Grealish and Villa are in action away to in-form Manchester City.

Manchester City and Aston Villa would have faced each other on the opening weekend of this Premier League campaign had Pep Guardiola's side not reached the final stages of the Champions League in Lisbon and earned an extra week to recuperate.

Plenty of what's happened since then - for both of these clubs and throughout the division - would have been impossible to predict, with a strange season springing surprises at every turn.

However, had City and Villa played one another in September, most observers would have confidently looked towards Kevin De Bruyne and Jack Grealish to supply the creative inspiration for their respective teams.

It is safe to say each star midfielder has lived up to his billing over the first half of the campaign.

Mutual respect

Grealish earned a long-awaited England debut earlier this season and was a bright spark when England suffered a 2-0 Nations League defeat in Belgium.

Before the match, the 25-year-old revealed he spent his final preparations casting an admiring eye over a certain member of the opposition.

"For the past 24 hours, I've been watching little clips of my favourite players like I do before every game," he told Sky Sports.

"I watch loads of clips. I watch clips of De Bruyne, I watch clips of [Philippe] Coutinho, just players that are in my position, really.

"That's what I've done since I was a little kid and I still do it to this day - I have no shame in saying that and that's what gets me going for football matches."

After the match, De Bruyne conceded Grealish had also captured his attention.

"I rate him very highly," he said. "He's somebody I mentioned before, talking to the team-mates at City, in a random conversation.

"In England they talked about creative problems in midfield, but he brings that to a team. He deserves a shot."

Those warm words from De Bruyne seemed to carry a little more weight when a move for Grealish was rumoured to be one of the topics of discussion during Guardiola's successful contract extension negotiations in November.

Given the City boss already must try to accommodate the playmaking talents of Phil Foden and Bernardo Silva around De Bruyne, it is questionable whether he needs such a reinforcement in his creative department.

However, Opta data from this season shows Grealish is doing plenty to match the reigning PFA Players' Player of the Year.

King creators

Both De Bruyne and Grealish have started 15 Premier League games apiece this season, with the latter playing one more minute overall.

In that time, the Villa man has created 55 chances to De Bruyne's 51, although City's number 17 has 10 assists to Grealish's seven following an outrageous outside-of-the-boot cross for John Stones to open the scoring in Sunday's 4-0 thrashing of Crystal Palace.

Overall, they are second and third in the Premier League's assists table, Harry Kane's fruitful relationship with Son Heung-min helping the England captain to amass 11 for Tottenham.

Manchester United talisman Bruno Fernandes separates them at the top when it comes to chances created, having crafted 54 for his Old Trafford colleagues.

Those numbers continue to look incredibly strong when projected across Europe's top five leagues.

Hakan Calhanoglu has created 59 chances for Serie A leaders Milan, although only six of those have been converted, while the continental top five is rounded out by Lyon's Memphis Depay being level with De Bruyne on 51.

In terms of assists, Kane and De Bruyne are again one and two from Bayern Munich's Thomas Muller (nine) and Roma's Henrikh Mkhitaryan (eight).

Goals, guile and grubby work

De Bruyne has fired off 57 shots this season (17 on target) to Grealish's 40 (14 on target).

However, City's designated penalty taker has only scored three, with his first Premier League goal from open play this season coming earlier in January at Chelsea.

Grealish has weighed in with five for Dean Smith's men, including a double in their logic-defying 7-2 evisceration of champions Liverpool.

Grealish has 81.2 per cent accuracy for passes ending in the final third, outstripping De Bruyne's 73.5 per cent, although the City favourite attempting 105 crosses and corners to the younger man's 51 goes some way to explaining this discrepancy.

In terms of dribble success rate, they are neck and neck again, with Grealish returning 63.8 per cent and De Bruyne 63.

Grealish has attempted 69 dribbles to his idol's 46, which does a little to explain the frequency with which he draws free-kicks.

His 73 fouls won is comfortably the highest in the division, with Palace's Wilfred Zaha (51), Liverpool's Sadio Mane (43) and Kane (40) up next.

A key reason for this could be how integral Grealish is to so much of Villa's attacking play. As per Opta, he is responsible for 11 per cent of his team's passes. By contrast, Zaha and Kane make five per cent and Mane four.

As players who cherish the ball so much, De Bruyne and his counterpart do plenty to get it back.

The UEFA midfielder of the year has made 74 recoveries, 27 tackles and seven interceptions in the Premier League this season, compared to 79 recoveries, 23 tackles and eight interceptions for Grealish.

It seems implausible that these two midfield maestros will stray too far from the thick of the action at the Etihad Stadium, which should make for a very watchable encounter.

Whether or not it amounts to a live audition for Grealish, only time will tell.

Aaron Wan-Bissaka could be key to Manchester United's chances in the New Year's Day clash with Aston Villa, as he will likely be at least partly responsible for keeping Jack Grealish shackled.

Grealish has been a standout player in the Premier League this season, with their exceptional start to the 2020-21 campaign in no small part down to the attacking midfielder's influence.

Only five teams have scored more than Villa's 28 goals this term, though four have played two more matches than them. The other, United, have played one game extra.

Grealish has scored five and set up six, excelling in his free-roaming role from the left as he has also created 51 chances in the Premier League – Hakan Calhanoglu (53) of Milan is the only player to have played more key passes across Europe's top five leagues.

Of those 51 chances created, 23 have come following a carry, defined by Opta as a movement of the ball that is greater than five metres from where it was received. No other player in the Premier League has produced more than 13 key passes from comparable situations.

 

Grealish impressed against United at Old Trafford last term, scoring a gorgeous goal in a 2-2 draw, and Wan-Bissaka is primed for a potentially decisive tussle with the England international, as the right-back delved into the data with United Review.

"I know he is always up there with getting the most fouls," Wan-Bissaka said of Grealish, whose 65 free-kicks won is comfortably the most in the Premier League. "We all know he’s a tricky player when he's out there on the pitch.

"He is a great player. He's unpredictable and can go inside or outside with the ball. I played against him last season and just have to be ready to take it as it comes.

"It is another challenge I am more than ready to take on, but he's not the only player we need to be paying attention to – they have lots of other good players like John McGinn, Ross Barkley, Trezeguet and others. We know it will be a tough game."

While Wan-Bissaka expects a testing encounter, Grealish surely will not be predicting an easy ride either – Opta revealed on Thursday that the United right-back made the most tackles (96) in the Premier League for a third successive calendar year in 2020.

On top of that, Wan-Bissaka's 50 blocks is a league-high for 2020-21, highlighting the full-back's defensive nous.

"I reckon it's probably down to there being situations where I've needed to tackle but, in that moment, there have been more situations I have had when I have had to block shots and crosses," he continued.

"I know there have been times in football where, if you don't block a shot, it can go in. So, the best thing to do is simply to attempt to block every shot and every cross.

"I know you cannot just dive into any tackle. You've got to make sure you time it right. It is a case of always concentrating and making sure you are timing them right as well.

"It's very good to hear, that I have had no bookings against me this season."

Despite his obvious defensive strengths, there remain plenty of United fans unconvinced by Wan-Bissaka's suitability as the club's first choice at right-back due to his limited attacking output.

He had seemingly improved as an attacking outlet in his first season at United from his days at Crystal Palace, with chance creation up to 0.7 per 90 minutes from 0.4 and open play crosses increasing to three per game from 1.6.

But he is yet to record an assist this season and his 0.3 expected assists (xA) figure further highlights how little impact he has in the final third.

 

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer insists his Manchester United players are not getting carried away by the prospect of a Premier League title challenge this season. 

Marcus Rashford's stoppage-time winner against Wolves on Tuesday stretched their unbeaten run to nine league games and cranked the pressure up on leaders Liverpool. 

The Red Devils are now just three points behind Jurgen Klopp's side and have a game in hand. 

It marks an impressive transformation in the club's fortunes after a dismal start to the season, which saw them collect just seven points from their opening six games. 

There were three home defeats in that run, including a humiliating 6-1 reverse to Tottenham. 

The 13-time Premier League champions have been a team reborn in recent months, though, and face Aston Villa on Friday knowing they can go level on points with Liverpool ahead of the Reds' clash against Southampton on Monday. 

While Solskjaer is delighted with how his side have improved, he says the hard work has only just started. 

"Well, we had a difficult start to the season with the late arrival of some players," he told the club's official website. "And I think we have shown after the second international break, the one in October, that we have regrouped and come together.

"We are getting fitter, stronger and the squad is getting better. We just have to take one game at a time, move up the table and improve as a team. 

"But we have finished the year strong. I think we have done well since the beginning of February, or end of January, and we have proven to ourselves that we can be consistent over a longer period.

"When you are getting closer [to the top of the table], that gives you a boost and it gives you extra focus. 

"The good thing about this group is that some of them have won before so they are not going to get too far ahead of themselves. 

"We know that the only way to do it is to take one game at a time.

"I know that is quite a boring statement, but that is the good thing about this group; they are not going to think we have cracked it because in any game in this league, you have got to be at it and that's why we have a big, strong squad."

Solskjaer acknowledges his side will have their work cut out against a Villa side who have won three of their last five Premier League games and sit just four points behind United, having played a game less.

The main threat for United will come from in-form pair Jack Grealish and Anwar El Ghazi.

Grealish – who was linked with a move to United ahead of the 2020-21 campaign – is the Premier League's leading chance creator so far this season, with the England international having crafted 51 opportunities, including six assists.

El Ghazi, meanwhile, has scored five goals in his last five top-flight appearances, after netting just four in his first 37 in the competition.

"You can see the improvement of results and also performances, how solid they are – they have conceded one goal in their last five league games and that was against Chelsea – so they have impressed me," Solskjaer added.

"We've met them in pre-season and of course we've kept in touch with them. I have been impressed but not surprised, because they have a squad and a team full of good players.

"I think it is a team performance, of course, but they have made some very good signings. I think Ollie Watkins is one of the centre forwards that you don't like to play against.

"At the moment, El Ghazi is the man in form and scoring every game. I think the whole front line is going to keep you on your toes and they are going to make you defend. 

"Then they are very solid at the back and they are not going to concede goals, so we need a good performance and hopefully we will get one."

Manchester City are reportedly planning a bid for Harry Kane, while United are still interested in Jack Grealish.

City have been linked with numerous forwards amid uncertainty over Sergio Aguero's future.

And it seems the Tottenham star is among their targets.

 

TOP STORY – MAN CITY PLANNING £88.7M BID FOR KANE

Manchester City are planning an £88.7million offer for Tottenham star Kane ahead of next season, according to Bild.

Kane, 27, is contracted at Spurs, where he continues to star, until 2024.

The England international has scored nine goals in 15 Premier League games this season.

 

ROUND-UP

- Manchester United remain interested in signing Aston Villa star Grealish, according to the Daily Mail. The midfielder was heavily linked with a move to United in the close season, but ended up staying at Villa, who are in action at Old Trafford on Friday.

- Eric Garcia has seemingly made a decision on his future. The Guardian reports the Manchester City defender has agreed personal terms on a five-year deal with Barcelona. Garcia is contracted at City until the end of the season.

- With Mauricio Pochettino reportedly set to take over at Paris Saint-Germain, Tottenham apparently have worries over Hugo Lloris. The Sun reports Spurs fear the goalkeeper could join former boss Pochettino in Paris and they are eyeing West Brom's Sam Johnstone and Manchester United's Dean Henderson as potential targets.

- Yet to play for Arsenal this season, Mesut Ozil's future remains a talking point. Bild reports the playmaker wants to see out his contract, which runs until season's end, with the Premier League outfit.

- Also coming out of contract, Sami Khedira looks set for a Juventus exit. The Daily Mail reports the midfielder is set to hold talks with Everton over a potential move.

- Struggling for game time at Manchester United, Jesse Lingard has had the one-year option on his contract at the club triggered, according to Sky Sports. Lingard's deal now runs until 2022.

If you were to look through any of the gossip columns over the past couple of years it would not take too long to see the words Manchester United and Jack Grealish in the same sentence.

Were we to take such speculation as gospel truth then England playmaker Grealish has been on the radar of Red Devils boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer pretty much ever since he took the top job at Old Trafford.

Grealish only penned a new five-year deal at boyhood club Aston Villa back in September but, even with the ink barely dry, his name continues to be linked with the Premier League's elite clubs.

A new year it may be but old rumours are likely to persist. With Villa visiting United for their first game of 2021, we take a look at what Grealish could offer to the 20-time champions of England, with the help of Opta data.

MASTER CREATOR

With Bruno Fernandes, Marcus Rashford, Paul Pogba, Anthony Martial, Juan Mata and Paul Pogba among the ranks there is no creativity void at United.

Having said that, Grealish's ability to provide opportunities for his team-mates ranks with the best in the division – this term quite literally.

In 2020-21, Grealish has created 51 chances in the Premier League (only Hakan Calhanoglu of Milan with 53 has more in Europe's top five league). That is four more than Fernandes, who is second in England's top flight, while Kevin De Bruyne has created 42 for a Manchester City side not scoring with the regularity they once did under Pep Guardiola.

Those chances have returned six assists, only one fewer than both Fernandes and De Bruyne, while Tottenham striker Harry Kane leads the way on 10.

Grealish is outperforming his expected assists from open play chances (3.67 expected, five in total), as is Fernandes (3.48). His overall expected assists of 4.26 is also the highest in the league (he of course has six in total), with Fernandes just behind on 4.05.

A look back to the start of last season shows Grealish has provided 142 chances in the Premier League, second only to De Bruyne on 178. Since his top-flight debut in February, Fernandes has created 77 – in the same timespan Grealish has 84 and De Bruyne 93.

Aside from Fernandes, whose job it is in fairness to create, United do not have anyone laying on opportunities at anything like the same level as Grealish. Rashford has 29 since the Portugal international's first game for the Red Devils, with Luke Shaw the next highest on 27.

Fernandes does beat Grealish in terms of passes (including crosses) into the opposition box this term (127 to 80), but since the start of last season no United player has more than the Villa playmaker's 297 (the 11th best in that timeframe – although Fernandes outscores him 257 to 172 since his debut).

Essentially, adding Grealish to their wealth of options could mean chances galore for United's forwards.

UNITED TO BENEFIT FROM FOUL PLAY?

Grealish has a reputation – rightly or wrongly – for, how shall we phrase this delicately ... let's say going down a little too easy.

But whatever your perception of Grealish's tendency to hit the deck there is no doubt his trickery, deceptive strength, and control of a football inevitably draws more than a few kicks to the shins.

This season alone, Grealish is comfortably the Premier League's most fouled player on 65, with Crystal Palace forward Wilfried Zaha next on the list with 42.

Going back to the start of last season, the difference is even more vast with the whistle being blown for a foul against Grealish on 232 occasions (Zaha is second, well behind on 162).

For contrast, United's most-fouled player in 2020-21 is Fernandes (21), with Rashford (20) and Scott McTominay (19) not far behind.

In a league decided by the smallest of margins, Grealish's propensity to win free-kicks in dangerous areas has potential to be crucial for a side like United, who have lofty ambitions to win the game's biggest prizes once again.

But don't let the numbers make you think Grealish isn't up for a physical battle. The 145 duels he has won in the top flight this term is the most in the league (one more than Tomas Soucek).

Going back to the start of the 2019-20 campaign, Villa's first since winning promotion, Grealish has come out on top in 434 duels (second only to Adama Traore's 462).

United's highest attacking performer for duels won (Harry Maguire and Aaron Wan Bissaka rank highest with 89 and 71 respectively) in the Premier League this season is Rashford on 70, while Fernandes has 63.

Imagine the space the likes of Fernandes and Pogba could have to operate in if opposition players were battling to get the ball back – often fruitlessly – from Grealish…

CARRYING VILLA UP THE TABLE

The simple act of watching Grealish in action is enough to realise how good he is with the ball at his feet, but the numbers to back this up are hugely impressive.

Grealish has 18 instances of carrying the ball leading to a shot, with only Rashford (19) ahead of him. Son Heung-min (16) and Wilfried Zaha (15) also rate highly.

But Grealish has 23 occasions of following a carry with a chance created – 10 more than Leeds United's Jack Harrison and Traore, who rank joint-second, while Rashford follows alongside Riyad Mahrez with 11.

When combining the two, Grealish has 41 carries leading to either a shot or a chance created – 11 clear of Rashford. Mahrez is next on 23, while Kane, Son and Mohamed Salah are each on 22.

This term Grealish has completed 43 dribbles – the third best in the league behind Traore (53) and Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa (50). Rashford is United's best performer in this metric on 34.

Going back to the start of last season, Grealish has completed 116 – behind only Traore (236), Zaha (184) and Allan Saint-Maximin (150).

IN SUMMARY…

United are flying high in the Premier League, giving their supporters hopes of a sustained title challenge this season. But there is no denying Grealish possesses traits that could be hugely beneficial to the Red Devils – not least his ball carrying ability, impressive chance creation and the canny knack of winning fouls. Whether United actually make a move for Grealish in January or beyond remains to be seen…

Around the globe, nations are welcoming in 2021, bidding goodbye to what has been a tumultuous year.

Much has changed in 2020, and while the coronavirus pandemic continues, football has at least returned, albeit in a vastly different way to what came before.

The Premier League was suspended for three months between March and June, but following a successful Project Restart, 2020-21 is shaping up to be one of the most unpredictable campaigns in recent history.

With 2020 coming to an end, and 2021 promising signs of improvement, we use Opta data to review the Premier League year.

PASS MASTERS CITY CONFINE DEFENSIVE CONCERNS TO HISTORY?

Pep Guardiola's swashbuckling Manchester City side of 2017 to 2019 may well be a thing of the past, but so, it seems, are defensive lapses.

While often rampant in attack, City could be got at the back, as Liverpool usually managed to expose in meetings between the two title challengers.

Perhaps with the league all but sewn up in Liverpool's favour by early 2020, however, Guardiola seems to have found the tonic to City's issues in defence.

City have kept 17 clean sheets in 2020, three more than any other side. Seven of those have come this season, while the resurgence of John Stones in recent weeks has been a major success story.

Stones has made six league appearances – all of them starts – and has helped City keep five clean sheets, while forming a fine partnership with Ruben Dias, meaning Aymeric Laporte has found himself out of the side.

City's improved defence has come at something of a cost, with their goal tally falling to 69, six behind Liverpool, who netted 75 times across 2020, and a drop of 26 from their total of 95 in 2019.

However, Guardiola's team still control possession as much as they ever did, making 20,237 successful passes in 2020.

Indeed, holding midfielder Rodri completed the most passes of any player in the Premier League, while his pass completion rate of 92.4 per cent was also the highest of any midfielder.

DYNAMIC PLAYMAKERS TOP THE CHARTS

While James Rodriguez has come into the Premier League and made a strong impact at Everton, creating 25 chances – including three assists – and scoring three times in 10 appearances for Carlo Ancelotti's side, it is the playmakers with more dynamism and tenacity who have impressed the most through 2020.

Kevin De Bruyne – last season's PFA Premier League Player of the Year – was the chief creator.

He was the only player to create more than 100 chances in the Premier League in 2020, while he also led all players in chances created from open play (83). De Bruyne's tally of 15 assists was also more than twice as many as any of his City team-mates.

Another standout is Bruno Fernandes, who has seemingly transformed Manchester United's fortunes since joining in January.

Fernandes was involved in 32 Premier League goals in 29 games in 2020 (18 goals, 14 assists). The 26-year-old is one of two players to have been involved in 30 or more Premier League strikes in a calendar year, after Luis Suarez in 2013.

Topping the chances created charts for this campaign, however, is Jack Grealish. Villa's captain crafted 93 opportunities in total through the year, second only to De Bruyne, and 51 of those have come from 14 appearances this term – an average of 3.64 per game.

Grealish's 10 big chances created is level with Fernandes, while only De Bruyne (11) has made more.

The key attribute which stands Grealish out, however, is his ability to carry the ball. Having amassed 8,634.99 metres, he leads the way in the league, ahead of Harry Maguire (7,462.14m), Adama Traore (6,912.35m) and Andrew Robertson (6,882.03m).

De Bruyne and Fernandes are no strangers to picking up the ball and powering forward, though their chance creation relies more on precise crossing and slick passing.

RUN, FOREST, RUN! THE PREMIER LEAGUE'S MARATHON MEN

It is no surprise to see that Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool top the distance-covered metrics for the year. In total, the Reds ran 3,854.8 metres, 20.1 more than second-placed Sheffield United, albeit Chris Wilder's men will not get much-needed points just because they run more than the opposition.

West Ham (3820.2m), Brighton and Hove Albion (3804.1m) and Chelsea (3722.4m) complete the top five, with Southampton something of a surprise omission, as Ralph Hasenhuttl's side are renowned for their pressing system.

However, Saints captain James Ward-Prowse does lead the way for distance covered, tallying up just under 396km over the course of 3,060 minutes (the equivalent of nine-and-a-half marathons).

As well as being a tireless worker, Ward-Prowse is a set-piece specialist, scoring four free-kick goals.

Indeed, those strikes contributed to Southampton's league-leading tally of 15 goals from outside of the area, with Danny Ings netting five long-range efforts and Stuart Armstrong adding four.

While Grealish has carried the ball further than any other player, Wolves' Traore clocked up the most dribbles, amassing 142 – 46 more than anybody else.

In January, Traore completed 14 dribbles in a game against Watford – the most by a player in a Premier League game since 2003-04, when Opta began recording.

 

BRUNO AND VARDY'S PENALTY PARTY

A total of 112 penalties were awarded in 2020 – 13 of these went to Leicester City, while 10 went the way of United, Chelsea and City respectively.

Fernandes converted eight times from the spot, while Leicester's Jamie Vardy scored seven, one ahead of Liverpool's Mohamed Salah.

West Brom are the only team to have not been awarded a Premier League spot-kick, with Crystal Palace, Norwich City and Burnley – much to Sean Dyche's chagrin – winning two each.

While Leicester won the most fouls inside the area, it was Grealish who was felled the most in general, averaging at least one foul in all 32 of his appearances.

 

SUPER STRIKERS

Rounding off our review are the Premier League's leading marksmen. Salah (23) and Fernandes (18) headline the scoring charts.

Salah's 23 strikes came from 33 appearances, while Fernandes made four fewer, though more of his goals did come from penalties.

The evergreen Vardy, with 17 goals, is next on the list, tied with Tottenham star Son Heung-min, who was involved in 18 open play sequences ending in goals, more than any other player.

Dominic Calvert-Lewin has enjoyed a brilliant run since Ancelotti took charge of Everton, scoring 16 times in 2020 – with 11 coming this season.

Calvert-Lewin had 93 attempts in total, which ranks second in the league, though it is 31 fewer than Salah managed, and his strikes, along with telling contributions from Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino and the creative forces of Robertson (12 assists) and Trent Alexander-Arnold (seven assists), helped Liverpool to their first-ever Premier League title.

Harry Kane's seemingly telepathic partnership with Son has proved fruitful for Spurs, and the England skipper scored 16 times across the year from 25 appearances, recording 10 assists.

Chelsea dropped points for the fourth time in five Premier League games as they were held to a 1-1 draw by Aston Villa in their final match of 2020. 

Frank Lampard will have been hoping for a response to their woeful 3-1 defeat to Arsenal and dropped big-money signing Timo Werner amid a goal drought, but the Blues were no more fluent against Dean Smith's side. 

Villa's hopes of keeping five consecutive top-flight clean sheets for the first time since September 1998 were ended 34 minutes in as Olivier Giroud struck, making it seven successive goalscoring appearances against the Villans in the Premier League for the Frenchman. 

But Anwar El Ghazi levelled with his fifth goal in as many games in the 50th minute and that proved decisive, while Chelsea were fortunate to not concede again when John McGinn hit the crossbar.

An entertaining start saw both sides threaten, Jack Grealish having a curling 18-yard effort turned wide by Edouard Mendy before Christian Pulisic lashed into the side-netting at the other end. 

Another opportunity was spurned by Pulisic just past the half-hour, though two minutes later Chelsea had the lead – Giroud sending a thumping header in from Ben Chilwell's inviting delivery. 

Villa levelled early in the second half when Matty Cash's cross found El Ghazi at the back post, and he steered home through the legs of Mendy, who probably should have done better. 

Chelsea's reaction was hardly emphatic and Villa went agonisingly close to a spectacular second, the ball breaking kindly for McGinn 30 yards from goal and his fierce effort cannoned off the bar. 

Lampard introduced the much-maligned Werner and Kai Havertz towards the end, though neither inspired an improvement in Chelsea's fortunes against a shrewd Villa backline.

Erling Haaland is Chelsea's number one transfer target, while a pair of Premier League giants are lining up January bids for Aston Villa captain Jack Grealish.

Borussia Dortmund star Haaland has netted 23 goals in 23 games since moving to the Bundesliga in January, leading to him reportedly being installed as Frank Lampard's top target for the off-season.

Will Haaland make the move to Chelsea?


TOP STORIES – CHELSEA WANT HAALAND

Borussia Dortmund star Erling Haaland has been identified as Chelsea's top transfer target along with West Ham's Declan Rice, according to Sky Sports journalist Angelo Mangiante.

Haaland has been linked with LaLiga champions Real Madrid, Barcelona, Manchester United, Manchester City and Liverpool.

But Haaland is wanted in London as Chelsea prepare for a clear-out, with seven players being made available – Antonio Rudiger, Andreas Christensen, Jorginho, Marcos Alonso, Ross Barkley, Danny Drinkwater and Victor Moses.

Jack Grealish believes the VAR is "ruining the game" after Aston Villa were denied a late equaliser against West Ham.

Having earlier missed a penalty on Monday, Ollie Watkins thought he had made it 2-2 in additional time, only for his strike to be ruled out by the VAR following a tight offside call.

Jarrod Bowen's 46th-minute goal proved to be the winner after Grealish had cancelled out Angelo Ogbonna's opener.

But after further VAR controversy in the Premier League, Grealish said the system was hurting the game.

"As for VAR, I've shared my views before and it's now just getting borderline embarrassing with some off [sic] the decisions," the England international wrote on Twitter.

"Ruining the game."

Aston Villa head coach Dean Smith rued the decision, with Watkins seemingly getting fouled by Ogbonna before tucking away Matt Targett's cross.

"We've had a penalty we've missed, and a goal disallowed for a part of his body which can't put the ball in the net anyway," he told Sky Sports.

"The goal Ollie scores at the end, they've given it as offside for his arm, but the only reason his arm's out there is because he's getting fouled. He either scores or it's a penalty. I still don't understand that.

"I'm okay if it's a red line and it says he's offside. That's the rule. But if his arm's up there because he's getting fouled, that's a penalty.

"I won't go home and think about VAR. It frustrates everybody, but there's no point in getting worked up about it. It's happened, I can't do anything about it now."

It came just days after Brighton and Hove Albion were awarded a controversial late penalty to draw against Liverpool.

There are growing calls for change and former England and Liverpool defender Jamie Carragher said it was needed, pointing to David Marshall's heroics for Scotland against Serbia in a Euro 2020 play-off that saw the goalkeeper initially not celebrate a penalty save.

"I was a massive fan of VAR. They were bringing it in to help the game and I was defending it at the start as there were teething problems, but now we're at the stage where the majority of people in this country haven't bought into it," he told Sky Sports.

"I don't think people are enjoying football as much. The moment that sums it up for me is David Marshall saving the penalty for Scotland, a massive moment in his career and he couldn't celebrate as he was waiting for the referee. If I could go back, I would use VAR in a different way."

Forget Lionel Messi and Harry Kane, Manchester City reportedly want Jack Grealish.

Grealish, 25, has starred for Aston Villa this season and also impressed with England during the international break.

And the playmaker seems to have impressed City manager Pep Guardiola.

 

TOP STORY – MAN CITY TARGET GREALISH OVER MESSI, KANE

Guardiola wants Manchester City to make a move for Villa star Grealish, according to The Independent.

The report says Barcelona star Messi and Tottenham forward Kane were discussed as potential signings, but Guardiola is an admirer of Grealish.

Only Kane (nine) has more Premier League assists than Grealish (five) this season, while the latter has also netted four times.

 

ROUND-UP

- Manchester City may soon have good news to report about Kevin De Bruyne. TodoFichajes reports De Bruyne has agreed to a new contract at City until 2025.

- Still linked with a move to Barcelona, Lautaro Martinez's future at Inter is unclear. However, FC Inter News says there is optimism Martinez will re-sign at Inter, who want to extend the forward's deal through to 2025.

- Having conceded 14 goals in eight Premier League games this season, Manchester United are reportedly considering moves for defenders. 90min reports Villarreal centre-back Pau Torres has moved top of their shortlist alongside RB Leipzig star Dayot Upamecano.

- As he struggles for game time at Inter, Christian Eriksen is being linked with a move. Tuttomercatoweb reports Borussia Dortmund are keeping an eye on the midfielder's situation, with the Bundesliga club having apparently been interested in the Denmark international during the previous transfer window too.

International football is largely over for 2020 and the Premier League is returning for the run-up to Christmas.

The next five weeks are jam-packed with action both domestically and in Europe, and hitting the ground running this weekend could give plenty of sides a timely boost.

If you're getting that fantasy team primed once more, cast your eye over our Opta-powered top tips...

 

EDOUARD MENDY

Chelsea goalkeeper Edouard Mendy finally conceded a goal in the Premier League in his last appearance, although the Blues still recovered to beat Sheffield United 4-1.

There's no reason to lose faith in the Senegal international ahead of the visit to Newcastle United this weekend.

In fact, Mendy has saved six of the seven shots on target he has faced in England's top flight, giving him a save percentage of 85.7. No keeper in the division can boast such a figure this season.

 

BEN CHILWELL

Chelsea's new-found stability means filling the backline with Blues defenders is no longer a risk to your fantasy success.

Of course, Ben Chilwell is someone who can provide plenty of points regardless of doing any actual defending.

He has been directly involved in four goals (two scored, two assisted) in five league games this season, more than any other defender.

AARON CRESSWELL

However, the prize for 2020-21's most creative defender goes to West Ham's Aaron Cresswell.

His three assists and 17 chances created are the top figures in the competition among defenders and he has been a part of three clean sheets to boot.

With the Hammers facing struggling Sheffield United this weekend, Cresswell is well worth considering.

 

JACK GREALISH

Now that doubts about his place in the England team appear well and truly dismissed, Jack Grealish can focus on the more improbable task of keeping Aston Villa in the race for Europe.

Only Harry Kane (eight) has more assists this term than Grealish (five), and only Mohamed Salah (20) has created more chances from open play (17). The Liverpool star is also the only player with more touches in the opposition box (85) than the Villa captain (70).

What's more, Grealish has scored in each of his past four appearances in all competitions against Brighton and Hove Albion, including in all three meetings last season. They are his favourite opposition.

WILFRIED ZAHA

Crystal Palace's four wins from their first eight games owes much to the form of Wilfried Zaha.

With five goals and two assists, he has already equalled the number of goal involvements that he managed in 38 league games in 2019-20.

Palace face winless Burnley on Monday.

 

GABRIEL JESUS

No Sergio Aguero? No problem. Gabriel Jesus has been involved in 11 goals in his past 11 matches in all competitions (eight scored, three assisted).

The Brazil striker has also scored in each of his previous three games and will look to stretch that run to four for the first time since April 2018 when Manchester City face Tottenham.

 

PATRICK BAMFORD

Only four players have scored more goals in the Premier League this season than Patrick Bamford - and they are only one ahead of the Leeds United striker.

Bamford has hit seven in his eight league games in 2020-21, a scoring run not seen at the club since the days that Mark Viduka graced Elland Road (he managed nine in his first eight appearances).

Given Arsenal's inconsistencies, there is every chance Bamford will pick up where he left off prior to the international break.

England midfielder Jack Grealish is embracing comparisons to Paul Gascoigne after continuing his impressive form against Iceland.

Grealish helped England complete their Nations League campaign with a 4-0 victory at Wembley on Wednesday.

The Aston Villa star made three key passes and was fouled six times – three more than any other player – as Phil Foden scored twice after goals from Declan Rice and Mason Mount.

Amid comparisons to former England star Gascoigne, Grealish welcomed the comparisons, but said he still had work to do.

"I thrive off those kinds of comparisons. I love Gazza. I've watched his documentary on Netflix about a million times," he said.

"I love his character, on the pitch and off the pitch. I love the way he played football, such a freedom and such a joy. You know, you've you hear so many people speak about him and say it was just a joy to watch.

"And I think that's the biggest compliment that you can have, when people say to me, it's just a joy to watch you, you know that makes me happy, because that's what I want to do. I just want to entertain people but I also want to be effective on the pitch just like Gazza was.

"But obviously those comparisons are far away, because I've not even played a tournament. Like he thrived on the biggest stage. And until I do that, I think I can't really be compared to him at the moment."

The win over Iceland was Grealish's fifth international appearance, and he has impressed in the Nations League, with only Harry Kane (eight) creating more chances from open play than his six for England.

Grealish has faced criticism for off-field issues in the past, but the 25-year-old said he was growing and learning.

"Years ago I didn't really think it was like a thing on the pitch, it was more off the pitch where I still thought I was just Jack from Solihull that I could just go out and do what I want," he said.

"As you get older, you probably learn that you're a hero to a lot of young lads, you're a role model. And you need to obviously watch what you're doing and that's not saying that I still won't make mistakes because, you know, I probably will.

"But I feel like I've grown up over the years and hopefully now I can carry on doing that as captain of a Premier League club. So, I was gonna take it all in my stride because at the moment I just absolutely love my life."

England manager Gareth Southgate is happy to have a selection headache as he prepares for Euro 2020 next year, after the Three Lions' youngsters starred against Iceland.

Records tumbled at Wembley in Wednesday's Nations League encounter, with England winning 4-0.

Declan Rice opened his international account, with Mason Mount doubling England's tally before Phil Foden – who had created the opener – scored his first goals for his country to complete the rout.

The only players aged 30 or older in England's starting XI were Kieran Trippier and Kyle Walker, Southgate starting four players – Foden, Mount, Rice and Bukayo Saka – aged 21 or younger; the first time the Three Lions have done so in a competitive match since November 1959.

His faith was repaid, with all of them turning in impressive displays as England dominated from start to finish, controlling 78.3 per cent of the possession, while Jack Grealish was again in superb form from a free role on the left flank.

Grealish, 25, won six fouls, meaning he has drawn 21 in total since his debut for England in September, more than any other player in that time.

Rice, meanwhile, is the first West Ham player to score for England since Matthew Upson against Germany in the 2010 World Cup, while the midfielder is also the second-youngest Hammer – after Joe Cole – to net for the Three Lions.

Two of Mount's three goals this season have come for his country, and with Foden's late double, three players aged 21 or under netted in the same match for England for the first time since February 1883 against Ireland, when William Cobbold, Oliver Whateley and Frank Pawson found the net.

Foden is the youngest player in the history of the England national team to score more than once in a match at Wembley.

He also became the youngest player to score and assist in a match for England since Marcus Rashford in September 2017.

With Southgate's 3-4-3 system finally clicking against Iceland, the debate will now turn to whether it is the formation the England manager should use heading into the Euros.

Jadon Sancho came on from the bench, as did Tammy Abraham, while in-form Dominic Calvert-Lewin was an unused substitute.

Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford were missing altogether, and with Mount, Grealish and Foden all looking sharp, Southgate has a plethora of attacking options to choose from, without factoring in the likes of Trent Alexander-Arnold and James Maddison.

However, it is a headache he is happy to deal with.

Southgate told Sky Sports: "I think over the last few days their talent has been outstanding. It was a very difficult game, all the players were hearing messages that this is meaningless and there was nothing to play for but they did play for it, there were big opportunities for young players but also for some older players.

"We're still trying to build and improve all the time. There was lovely football and it was good to watch and it was good for the young ones to get the goals – very special for them.

"The squad that we've had over the last three months is going to peak in the next three to five years and they'll get a lot more club experience and international experience. We'll invest the time in them. There are some very good senior professionals as well.

"We are still working on the balance of players for the system. Our attacking play was very, very good. If it's a headache about having good players in the side then that's a good one to have."

One down side for England was captain Harry Kane failing to score from five attempts – none of which hit the target.

Wednesday is the only day of the week Kane is yet to score on for England, the Tottenham star having attempted 12 shots in three such games, but failing to land a single one on goal.

Jack Grealish can cope with the increased expectations following a strong start to his England career, though Gareth Southgate has emphasised success will only be achieved as a team. 

Aston Villa playmaker Grealish, 25, made his full England debut in a 3-0 victory over Wales in October - setting up the opening goal for Dominic Calvert-Lewin - but was not used by Southgate for the subsequent Nations League fixtures. 

He set up Jadon Sancho in a 3-0 win over the Republic of Ireland last week and was bright in a 2-0 loss to Belgium on Sunday, attempting more passes in the opposition half than any player on the pitch and drawing a game-high seven fouls. 

That result ended England's hopes of reaching the last four of the Nations League and there have consequently been calls for Southgate to begin building his team around Grealish, who has been involved in 12 goals in as many appearances for club and country this season. 

Asked whether it was important to manage the expectations on Grealish ahead of Wednesday's meeting with Iceland, Southgate told a news conference: "I think that's always important with any player, we are going to succeed or fail as a team. It's for everybody to contribute. 

"We've tried to ensure over the past four year that it's collective expectation, we could put pressure on Harry Kane, Raheem [Sterling], other players, and it needs to be the same with Jack. 

"He's had a super start to his international career. I think he'll be able to handle the attention because he thrives under that pressure. He's got great courage with the ball, so I don't think that'll faze him. Equally, it's going to be the squad that brings us success as a collective."

Another player in the embryonic stages of their international career is 17-year-old Borussia Dortmund midfielder Jude Bellingham. 

When told Bellingham wears the number 22 because he was challenged to be capable of playing as a number four, eight and 10 at former club Birmingham City, Southgate said it is important not to try to categorise the teenager as a specialist in any one position yet. 

"Well, I think he could end up playing any of those roles. At Dortmund he's playing as one of two fours or as an eight, and most of the time at Birmingham he was kind of in the position of an eight really," said Southgate. 

"But he's so young, you don't have to specialise yet. [With] a lot of midfield players, it's more important he learns the game, he gets brilliant experiences playing in whatever positions might be his strongest and as time develops it'll probably become apparent which is his more suited position. 

"But he is a midfield player who can pass, tackle, break forward and score goals, so he can do any of those jobs and I never think with young players we should rush to pigeonhole them into one, we should wait to see how he develops. And, at the moment, he's developing really well." 

There has been a focus on the performances of Marcus Rashford following his charity work to help reduce food poverty among children in the United Kingdom. This week he also launched a book club for kids. 

Amid criticism from certain parts of the media and suggestions he should focus on football, Southgate has been left baffled by the treatment of the Manchester United forward.

"I don't really understand those comments. The days where the players just focused on their football and did nothing else are in the far distant past," he said.

"Modern players recognise they have an opportunity to make a difference, whether that's in their local community or on a broader scale, they have a voice and a social media presence.

"You know as a sportsman you're going to have a second career when you finish football, that's the reality, so I don't know why they would limit themselves to just one thing.

"Of course, it's important you're training and focus on games isn't affected, but it's possible to achieve that balance."

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