Manchester City have won their third Premier League title in the past four seasons, also making it a hat-trick of triumphs in England's top flight for manager Pep Guardiola.

Even more so than when City racked up remarkable 100 and 98-point totals in their back-to-back 2017-18 and 2018-19 successes, this has been a tale of collective endeavour.

After a November defeat at Tottenham left Guardiola's men languishing in 11th, with 12 points from eight games, a steady turnaround occurred, with City establishing irresistible momentum by the early weeks of 2021.

This version of City might not be as freewheeling and freescoring as in previous years – they are set to fall well short of the 102 goals they managed despite coming a distant second to Liverpool last term – but they have proved no less effective.

Here, we look at some of the key figures in their revival.

Ruben Dias

There were a number of factors that helped Guardiola to put the pieces back together after a crushing 5-2 defeat in City's first Premier League home game of the season versus Leicester City, but the fact they secured Dias as a club-record signing from Benfica two days later feels heavily symbolic.

The Portugal centre-back instantly provided the defensive leadership City have lacked since Vincent Kompany's departure in 2019 and shoring things up at the back took the pressure off an attack struggling to adjust to Sergio Aguero's more marginal role.

In Dias' 30 Premier League appearances, City have conceded 18 goals, four of which were penalties, set against an expected goals against (xGA) figure of 21.3. In the 30 games prior to his debut, Guardiola's men conceded 32 goals, including six penalties, from 29.5 xGA against.

The 23-year-old has unquestionably added a layer of steel that City previously lacked - something that was emphatically demonstrated by his heroic midweek showing against Paris Saint-Germain - although he is not the only player responsible for this development.

John Stones

Forlorn battles with form and fitness in 2019-20 left Stones at a career crossroads. Had Eric Garcia signed a new contract instead of running his deal down in order to join Barcelona on a free, his race might have been run at the Etihad Stadium.

Despite a lengthy chase for a senior centre-back – Dias having not been City's first choice – and Nathan Ake's arrival from Bournemouth, Stones chose to buckle down to rich rewards.

He impressed in City's opening 3-1 win over Wolves but then had to bide his time as a rotation option. Those midweek performances persuaded Guardiola to install him at Dias' first-choice partner after some unsteady outings from pervious mainstay Aymeric Laporte.

A goal-costing error on his return to England duty in March and a recent red card at Aston Villa showed some of the old frailties remain, but bravura showings in the Champions League wins at Borussia Dortmund and PSG demonstrated how far the 26-year-old has come.

With Stones on the pitch this season, City have conceded one goal every 195 minutes. Among defenders to have played at least 1,000 minutes in 2020-21, only Chelsea's Antonio Rudiger (219) has a better rate.

Joao Cancelo

Dias' compatriot Cancelo has typified two familiar elements when it comes to Guardiola teams – players often fare far better after a mixed initial season getting used to the Catalan tactician's demands, while innovation and excellence in the full-back areas is usually a sign of things being in very good working order

"He arrived last season, he was confused in the beginning, he expected something we could not offer him but he is a nice guy with a great heart," Guardiola said in January, by which time it had become apparent how effective the former Juventus man was in his hybrid full-back/midfield role.

When City motored clear of the pack during 21-match winning run in all competitions that spanned December to March, Cancelo was key in helping to provide the numerical superiority in midfield Guardiola desires, while also proving versatile enough to operate both inside and outside from right-back or left-back.

Cancelo is the first Premier League player to average more than two tackles (2.7), 1.5 chances created (1.7) and 50 successful passes (61.5) per 90 minutes since Cesc Fabregas in 2017-18. To perhaps underline his unique interpretation of the full-back position, Cancelo is the only defender among the previous 10 players to hit these combined marks, going back to Aaron Ramsey in 2013-14.

Ilkay Gundogan

Particularly this season, everything in a Guardiola team is noticeably connected. The Dias-Stones axis has shored things up to the extent Cancelo can provide both extra midfield protection and an additional creative outlet.

A knock-on from this is Gundogan being able to make hay further up the field. When City last won the league in 2018-19, he performed with distinction in a holding midfield role during the run-in.

This term, the Germany playmaker has been unleashed to devastating effect, hitting a particular purple patch in front of goal as City swept all before them in January and February – netting braces to sink Liverpool and Spurs in the latter month.

In 26 appearances, Gundogan has scored 12 times. His 11 non-penalty goals are three better than any other midfielder in the division.

Gundogan's contributions have been particularly valuable give City's lack of a reliable goalscoring attacker, while also helping Guardiola's now go-to striker-less formation to flourish.

He could still finish the campaign as the lowest scoring top-scorer from a Premier League champion, a distinction presently held by Frank Lampard, who scored 13 times when Chelsea claimed glory in 2004-05.

Kevin De Bruyne

De Bruyne was named PFA Footballers' Footballer of the Year last season and has not stolen the limelight in quite the same way this time around. However, that is perhaps down to his team-mates not leaving him to fight a lone hand as he did for much of the previous campaign.

The Belgium maestro's contribution has still been very impressive. He has five goals and 11 assists in the Premier League, while he has now scored in City's past five Champions League knockout ties.

He has created 74 chances in 24 appearances, averaging 3.44 per 90 minutes – the best rate of any player in the Premier League, albeit down on his remarkable average of 4.37 last season.

Phil Foden

For club and country, Foden has enjoyed the kind of breakout season that seems to have been craved for some time, despite the fact he is still a few weeks shy of his 21st birthday.

A central midfielder as he came through the ranks at City, Foden has largely been deployed as a wide attacker and to devastating effect.

His 12 goal involvements (seven goals, five assists) are more than any under-21 player in the Premier League, while his performance and stunning solo goal in a 4-1 win at Anfield showed his taste for the big occasion – a priceless facet again demonstrated as the England international scored the winner in each leg of the Champions League quarter-final against Dortmund.

Having faced frequent calls to give Foden more game-time, Guardiola now counts the youngster as a practically locked-in selection for big games. As in each of his four seasons in senior football, Foden has featured more regularly, with 26 Premier League appearances and 15 starts to his name.

John Stones is relishing the prospect of tangling with Neymar and Kylian Mbappe once more as Manchester City eye a place in the Champions League final.

Pep Guardiola's side came from behind to claim a 2-1 win over Paris Saint-Germain last week at the Parc des Princes, putting them in a strong position for Tuesday's return at the Etihad Stadium.

PSG's all-star attack was largely nullified, centre-back Marquinhos having headed them into an early lead, and especially so after half-time.

Mbappe failed to attempt a single shot for the first time in a Champions League game where he has completed 90 minutes, with Stones and central defensive partner Ruben Dias understandably taking plenty of plaudits for their display.

"It's never easy, whoever we come up against. On the big occasions it matters the most," Stones told reporters at a Monday news conference, after Mbappe was confirmed as a member of PSG's travelling party despite sustaining a calf issue during the initial encounter.

"To come up against two world-class players is exciting for us as defenders. To test ourselves, show our ability and show how we can adapt to the challenge ahead to keep them quiet.

"I think we did that really, really well in the second half of the previous game

"It's another exciting spectacle tomorrow. Hopefully we can keep the whole team quiet, not just those two and get through to something special, which would be the final."

City are in the semi-finals for the first time since 2016, with a slew of knockout stage disappointments having afflicted them under Guardiola.

However, Stones feels setbacks versus Monaco, Liverpool, Tottenham and Lyon over recent seasons will serve to sharpen collective minds as PSG aim to overturn the deficit.

"I do think all those things that have happened, us going out, have made us a stronger team," he said.

"The disappointment of getting knocked out in harsh circumstances is hard to take and something we have had to use season-on-season – especially this season – as fuel to go and motivate us to make that next step and get our goal, which is to win the Champions League.

"This season we have a great opportunity to get into the final. Just try to use those emotions of disappointment to motivate us to do better."

Stones frequently repeated the refrain that City must "be who we are" in the second leg – very much maxim for his manager over recent weeks – and believes playing for a draw could be fatal to their chances.

"I think we have to attack the game as we would every other game, definitely go out to win. We've never gone into a game if we're in a good position thinking we need to sit there and defend," the England international added.

"It's a downward spiral if we go into the game like that. We do what we've always done, be who we are and try to win the game. Play as Man City. Everyone knows how we play."

Will Cristiano Ronaldo still be at Juventus next season?

Ronaldo's future appears to depend on Juve's Champions League participation.

Manchester United and Paris Saint-Germain loom large for the Portuguese superstar.

 

TOP STORY – MAN UTD OR PSG FOR RONALDO?

Cristiano Ronaldo is weighing up whether to return to Manchester United or join Paris Saint-Germain if Juventus fail to qualify for the Champions League next season, according to Tuttosport.

Ronaldo's future has dominated headlines amid speculation the five-time Ballon d'Or winner is set to leave Serie A giants Juve at the end of the current campaign.

Initially linked with Real Madrid, Ronaldo is reportedly eyeing either United or PSG in order to play in the Champions League.

 

ROUND-UP

- Fabrizio Romano reports RB Leipzig head coach Julian Nagelsmann is set to replace Hansi Flick at Bayern Munich. Despite interest from Tottenham and other clubs, Nagelsmann has agreed a five-year contract with the Bundesliga champions, who must negotiate a fee with Leipzig.

Raphael Varane wants to leave Madrid amid links with Chelsea, United and PSG, claims Diario AS. The France international defender is contracted to the Santiago Bernabeu until next season but Madrid are believed to be willing to cash in on Varane as they look to fund moves for PSG's Kylian Mbappe and Borussia Dortmund sensation Erling Haaland, who has also been linked with Liverpool, United, Manchester City, Juve, Bayern and Barcelona.

- Manchester Evening News says United are interested in Slavia Prague's 21-year-old forward Abdallah Sima.

- The Sun reports England centre-back John Stones is in advanced talks with Premier League leaders City over a new five-year contract.

- Antonio Conte is dreaming of prising Udinese star Rodrigo De Paul to Inter, says Calciomercato. The Argentina international has also been linked with Napoli and Leeds United.

Phil Foden made the difference for Manchester City once again at Aston Villa, with Pep Guardiola feeling the England international is coming of age.

Having lost their previous Premier League game at home to 10-man Leeds United and slumped to 1-0 FA Cup semi-final defeat to Chelsea at the weekend, City emerged from the whirlwind of the European Super League debacle to go behind after 20 seconds to John McGinn's strike at Villa Park.

But Foden excelled, crowning a fine team move to equalise before Rodri headed home Bernardo Silva's cross to seal a 2-1 win before half-time.

There were further twists, as City ended the opening period with 10 men after John Stones clattered into Jacob Ramsey.

It was 10-a-side before the hour, though, as Foden tormented Villa right-back Matty Cash into a pair of yellow cards.

Overall, it was a supreme display from the England international, following on from his goals in each leg of City's Champions League quarter-final win over Borussia Dortmund.

"He's growing, this guy is growing. He is making steps forward every time," Guardiola told Sky Sports.

"His influence in our game is massive right now. He scored a goal, provoked the two yellow cards, in the final third he ran a lot and he is so aggressive without the ball.

"He is becoming a serious player."

Foden's 14 goals and nine assists mean only Kevin De Bruyne (24) among his team-mates has more than his 23 goal involvements this season and he is second to Ilkay Gundogan (16) in City's scoring charts.

Whether the 20-year-old is ahead of where he was expected to be in terms of development is not something that overly concerns Guardiola when the returns he is producing right now are so good.

"There are guys at 19 and 20 years old who are unstoppable, at 29 and 30 they are not," he said.

"The players dictate who they are. Right now for the last games, Phil is becoming such an important player

"Against Dortmund he scored an important goal, the cross for the penalty, the final goal in the last minute against Dortmund at home.

"He can play inside, outside, he is so aggressive with the ball."

It was not such a pleasing outing for Foden's international team-mate Stones.

Guardiola was initially infuriated by the decision after referee Peter Bankes consulted the pitchside monitor and elected to upgrade his initial booking.

Villa boss Dean Smith also felt Stones was harshly done by, but the City manager feels the centre-back's woes should serve to sharpen minds in his squad ahead of Sunday's EFL Cup final against Tottenham and the Champions League semi-final showdown with Paris Saint-Germain.

"He is late but the intention is not bad. He wanted to get the ball," Guardiola said.

"We are happy. If we lost we would be angry, but okay.

"It is a good lesson for the final on Sunday. You play a final 10 v 11, you have no chance. And especially then against PSG."

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is not alone in facing a conundrum as he decides on who will play in goal for Manchester United against Tottenham.

Fantasy football players across the globe may also be wondering who to back between the sticks this weekend. Well, we might just be able to settle the debate.

As the Premier League season enters its decisive final weeks, we've got a handful of suggestions to give you the edge when it comes to your fantasy leagues, and one or two may just surprise you.

Without further ado, here are our picks for matchday 31, based on Opta data.

 

DEAN HENDERSON

Since taking over the number one spot with United while David de Gea was on parenting duties, Henderson has given little reason to suggest he should be dropped.

The England man might only have made four appearances in the top flight in 2021 but, of the 11 shots he has faced, he has saved all but one of them. That gives him a save percentage of 91, the best in the competition among keepers to play at least twice.

He could well be entrusted to keep Harry Kane and company at bay when United face Tottenham.

ANDY ROBERTSON

Even during a much more difficult season at Liverpool, Robertson continues to offer value as a defender given his undiminished attacking proclivities.

Only Aaron Cresswell (seven) has been directly involved in more Premier League goals among defenders this season than Robertson (six).

The Scotland left-back has had 80 touches in the opposition box, by far the most for a defender this term. He's an attacking threat to rely on.

 

JOHN STONES

Not only has Stones won back his place in Pep Guardiola's first-choice defence, he's even started proving a menace in the opposition box this year.

The centre-back has scored four goals in 2021, the most of any Premier League defender, having only managed one in his first 170 games in the top flight.

Given he already has eight clean sheets this year, behind only Cesar Azpilicueta (nine) among defenders, he should practically walk into fantasy teams at present.

JESSE LINGARD

He's been talked about pretty much every week since joining West Ham on loan – and for good reason.

Since his league debut for the Hammers in February, Lingard has been directly involved in nine goals (six scored, three assisted), matching Kane (seven scored, two assisted) for the most involvements of any player in the competition in that time.

West Ham face a tough test against Leicester City on Sunday, but Lingard has good recent memories of facing the Foxes: he scored the second goal when Manchester United won 2-0 at the King Power Stadium on the final day of last season.

 

RAPHINHA

Patrick Bamford has enjoyed a strong first Premier League season for Leeds United, but few would deny that Raphinha has been their standout attacking performer.

No Leeds player has created more chances (55) or provided more assists (six) than the Brazilian, who has also scored six goals of his own in 2020-21, most recently in the 2-1 win at Fulham on March 19.

If anyone can cause problems for Manchester City on Saturday, it's him.

DANNY WELBECK

Welbeck is enjoying a decent run of form for Brighton and Hove Albion, with goals in his previous two games against Newcastle United and boyhood club Manchester United.

The 30-year-old hasn't managed to score in three in a row in the Premier League since January 2014, but Everton might just be the ideal opposition for him to do just that.

Welbeck has more direct goal involvements (eight – four scored, four assisted) against the Toffees than he does against any other top-flight team. His goals have come for three different teams, too: United, Arsenal and Sunderland.

 

AYOZE PEREZ

Perez is another man with fond memories of his coming opponents.

The forward has managed three goals and three assists in his previous seven league games against West Ham, making them his most profitable opponents after Southampton.

Kelechi Iheanacho is the man in form at Leicester City, but Perez could well be a safe bet to make a decisive impact against the Hammers.

Harry Maguire defended John Stones after bailing out his centre-back colleague's error with a late winner in England's 2-1 World Cup qualifying victory over Poland on Wednesday.

England's 100 per cent start in Group I was seemingly about to end after Harry Kane's first-half penalty was cancelled out just before the hour by Jakub Moder.

Stones was robbed just outside his own box by Moder, who nudged the ball to Arkadiusz Milik and quickly received a return pass before emphatically firing beyond Nick Pope with the first shot on target England had faced in the group.

But Maguire lashed in a fierce effort of his own five minutes from time, latching on to a knock-down by Stones at a corner, ensuring the Three Lions made it three wins from as many games on the road to Qatar 2022.

It stretched England's winning run at home in World Cup and European Championship qualifiers to 20 matches going back to October 2012, and Maguire was keen to downplay Stones' initial mistake.

"John [Stones] has been brilliant this year," Maguire told ITV Sport, alluding to the Manchester City defender's emergence as a key player for Pep Guardiola's runaway Premier League leaders.

"Defenders make mistakes and when we do we get scrutinised. He's had a great year, a great camp as well. He made one little mistake but made up for it with a great header at the back post, that's what he's there for.

"I said to him to just keep going, keep going and we'll get the win and we managed to do that."

While Stones' technical talents have never been in doubt, the former Everton defender has been prone to the occasional lapse in concentration throughout his Premier League career.

Since joining City before the 2016-17 season, only six outfield Premier League players have made more mistakes leading to shots than Stones (12) has across all competitions, while Granit Xhaka (eight) and Dejan Lovren (seven) are the sole individuals to have brought on more goals with mistakes than the England man (six).

But this season Stones appears to have turned a corner, with the 26-year-old yet to see any error of his lead to a shot or goal for City.

As such, Maguire does not believe Wednesday's mishap is anything more than a blip.

"We're defenders, we always make mistakes," Maguire added. "Obviously, we don't like making mistakes but sometimes we are at fault for goals. We're not perfect, by any means, and John obviously had a little blip tonight.

"He will come back strong. He's in great form club and country, he's been brilliant over this camp and apart from that little mistake, which I'm sure he won't make again soon, it was a big performance from him to come back strong with the reaction he made and getting the assist is important for the team."

England manager Gareth Southgate echoed that sentiment, applauding Stones' response.

"He managed to compose himself for the rest of the game and had a part in the winning goal which was important - you can fold in those moments and he didn't," Southgate said.

"He's been having a good season and he's made a mistake tonight, he knows that but he bounced back during the game and he's got to keep doing that."

Harry Maguire bailed out what looked set to be a costly John Stones error as the Manchester United defender scored England's late winner in a 2-1 victory over Poland on Wednesday.

Gareth Southgate's men, who had begun a new World Cup qualifying campaign with wins over San Marino and Albania, just about did enough against a Poland side without the injured Robert Lewandowski.

The Three Lions were good value for their lead amid a commanding first-half display, Harry Kane becoming England's all-time leading penalty scorer on 10 as he converted after fine play by Raheem Sterling.

Stones gifted Poland a chance that Jakub Moder capitalised on in the 58th minute, though he played an important role as Maguire's goal maintain England's unblemished start in Group I.

 

England played the ball around with swagger during the early exchanges and almost opened the scoring in the eighth minute, only for Phil Foden to head Ben Chilwell's cross over after Mason Mount carved the Poland defence open.

Nevertheless, England did not have to wait much longer to take the lead, Kane confidently dispatching a penalty having seen the lively Sterling clumsily tripped by Michal Helik.

Kane was then denied a second just past the half-hour mark, latching on to Foden's clever first-time offload and forcing Wojciech Szczesny into an applaudable save down to his right from 20 yards.

But England were pegged back before the hour, Stones – who had put England in trouble a few minutes earlier only to be bailed out by Nick Pope – was robbed just outside his own penalty and Moder applied an emphatic finish after being fed by substitute Arkadiusz Milik.

England's response was meek, the home side's urgency showing little sign of improvement as the seconds ticked away – Foden's weak right-footed shot in the 69th minute causing Szczesny no bother.

There was to be a final hurrah for the hosts, however, as Stones made up for his earlier blunder by heading a corner delivery back into the danger zone and Maguire smashed past the helpless Szczesny to seal the points.

Jesse Lingard has revealed Gareth Southgate pointed him down the path towards an England recall.

Southgate will take charge of his 50th game when England begin their World Cup qualifying campaign against San Marino at Wembley on Thursday.

His first, against Malta in October 2016, was also Lingard's international debut and the attacking midfielder became one of Southgate's key performers as England charted a surprise run to the semi-finals of the 2018 World Cup.

However, struggles for form and fitness at Manchester United, along with difficulties in his private life, saw Lingard fall out of the Three Lions picture.

In January he joined West Ham on loan and has been a player revitalised.

Five goals in seven Premier League appearances for David Moyes' men earned an England recall for the 28-year-old, who thanked Southgate for his counsel and his influence over the Hammers move.

"He's shown a lot of support and belief in me, he gave me my England debut, which I'm proud of," Lingard told talkSPORT.

"I still kept in contact with him even though I wasn't playing, just to get his advice on what I should do.

"It was just about the right move, whether it was going out to Europe or staying in the Premier League.

"He said, 'If I was you, I would stay in the Premier League'. After that, it was about finding a Premier League side and West Ham fitted in perfectly."

Since his West Ham debut against Aston Villa on February 3, only Leicester City striker Kelechi Iheanacho (six) has more Premier League goals than Lingard (five), while he is level with England captain Harry Kane and Manchester City midfielder Ilkay Gundogan over the period in question.

His 12 shots on target are a joint Premier League best along with Kane, giving him a shot conversion rate of 23.8.

Lingard also has two assists for the Hammers and has created eight opportunities for team-mates overall.

 

Another man in from the cold, although less dramatically, is Manchester City centre-back John Stones.

Like Lingard, Stones was a mainstay at Russia 2018 but last played for England in November 2019 after his club form dwindled.

However, a supreme centre-back alliance with Ruben Dias for Premier League leaders City made a recall for the 26-year-old a virtual formality – not that he necessarily viewed it that way.

"It was difficult watching from home," Stones told reporters, having also acknowledged Southgate "texted now and then" when he was out of favour.

"You feel a bit helpless that you can't contribute and be a part of the squad, but I used it as a motivation to strive to be better.

"When I got the text the other day, it was a great feeling to be back involved and see all the faces I've got some great memories with.

"I was very nervous. I had worked so hard and I was hearing people say, 'you should be in'.

"But I didn't take any of that in until the text arrived. I wanted to hear from the source. I was absolutely made up."

City remaining in contention for four major honours shows how impressive their overall performances have been this season, but with Stones in the team their record verges on the absurd.

In 20 games where the former Everton defender has not played, Pep Guardiola's men have won 13, drawn five and lost two for a 65 per cent win rate. In these games they conceded 19 times.

Out of Stones' 26 appearances, City have won 24 alongside a draw and a loss and have conceded only seven times. This tallies to 0.3 goals against and 2.8 points per game and a win percentage of 92.3.

John Stones deserves an England national team recall, according to Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola.

The 26-year-old defender scored City's opening goal in Saturday's 3-0 win away to Fulham in the Premier League.

Stones has been in excellent form for the league leaders in recent months, prompting talk of an England call-up for the first time since November 2019.

He had lost his place in the City line-up but fought back to become a key member this season, making 25 appearances in all competitions, including 18 starts in the league.

England manager Gareth Southgate will announce a squad next week for upcoming World Cup qualifiers against San Marino, Albania and Poland.

"He deserves it," Guardiola said.

"Of course Gareth Southgate knows better than me what he needs but just in case it happens, the one person who would be delighted and happy about his comeback in the national team, would be me.

"It was another great performance, apart from the goal which was so important, the way he played."

Stones has 39 caps to his name since his England debut in 2014.

He was part of England's 2018 World Cup squad, scoring twice in the 6-1 win over Panama.

Pep Guardiola and John Stones expressed their joy after seeing Sergio Aguero end a long Premier League goal drought in Manchester City's 3-0 win at Fulham on Sunday.

Aguero has been plagued by injuries over the past year or so and was without a goal in the top flight since January 21, 2020.

But he finally ended that dry spell in the second half at Craven Cottage, converting a penalty won by Ferran Torres after he robbed – and was hauled down by – former City youngster Tosin Adarabioyo.

Aguero had previously gone 13 appearances, 641 minutes of play and 24 shots without netting in the league, according to Opta, with his last goal coming against Sheffield United 417 days ago.

The 32-year-old's penalty completed a comfortable win that had been set in motion by John Stones' fifth goal of the season and Gabriel Jesus' eighth in his last 10 starts.

When asked about Aguero finding the net, Guardiola told Sky Sports: "It was important for him [Aguero]. To score goals is everything for him.

"Gabriel as well, and Ferran played an incredibly good game too. All the team was brilliant."

Aguero has been limited to just seven Premier League appearances this term, and even when fit he has had to be patient for opportunities, with Guardiola routinely opting to instead deploy a 'false nine' this term.

While the Argentinian forward was otherwise quiet, having just one other shot in the entire match, Stones was clearly pleased for his teammate.

Stones added: "I'm really happy for Sergio to get that scoring feeling back.

"We all know how good he is and I'm really happy to see him on the scoresheet, as I'm sure every City fan is."

Victory for City increased their lead at the Premier League summit to 17 points with just eight matches to go, though second-placed Manchester United do have a couple of games in hand.

Nevertheless, Stones acknowledged the end-of-season prizes are starting to come into sight, but Guardiola stressed they cannot lose focus now.

The Catalan coach said to BBC Sport: "Wins help to win the next game - of course, a different competition. There is not a second option in the next game [against Borussia Monchengladbach in the Champions League]. We will prepare our best and try to do well to get in the next stage."

"We travel to Budapest now and prepare for another 'final' [last-16 second leg] before we get ready for the quarter-final of the FA Cup.

"I will arrive well [with a fresh squad] in Budapest through rotating. Sometimes the players don't believe me, I want everyone involved. Sometimes it is difficult but everyone has to make a contribution to win games and we will arrive at the end of the season fighting as best as possible."

Stones added: "We've always had that fighting spirit. The target is in the front of our minds and it's getting closer.

"We're taking each game as it comes. Games are coming thick and fast and there are a lot of competitions we're still in."

John Stones hopes rediscovering his best form for Manchester City will lead to an England recall after the defender scored in Saturday's 3-0 win over Fulham.

Pep Guardiola's side extended their lead at the Premier League summit to 17 points, with all three goals coming in the second half at Craven Cottage.

It was Stones who got the ball rolling early in the second half, before Gabriel Jesus scored and Sergio Aguero ended his goal drought from the penalty spot.

Stones has now scored five goals in all competitions this season and has strung together a series of fine displays to put himself firmly back on Three Lions boss Gareth Southgate's radar, and the 26-year-old revealed earning the right to add to his 39 caps was a motivation for him.

Asked if an England recall was on his mind, he said: "Definitely. It's a massive honour for me and being out of the [recent] squads has been difficult for me.

"It's been a motivation for me and I've worked hard to get back into the team here and the England call-up – if it comes – is progress from what I've done for City."

Fulham, fresh from a 1-0 win over champions Liverpool, provided a stern test in a cagey opening 45 minutes before City pulled away.

It was a much-changed visiting side, with Guardiola's men competing for silverware on four fronts, and Stones was pleased with how the incoming players performed in a testing encounter in London.

"Everyone that came in deserves every bit of credit for the way we played," he said. "We fought and stayed so patient, which is difficult in moments like this.

"I'm glad to get on the scoresheet again. We knew that they keep such a high line from set-pieces. I tried to time my run as best as I could. The ball was great from Joao [Cancelo]. We told him to go over earlier to have an in-swinging ball and it paid off.

"We know that the squad is rotated because of the schedule of whatever it may be that the manager decides. We all know our roles and responsibilities.

"Give a lot of credit to Fulham. The way they play their football doesn't really reflect where they are in the table.

"They're a strong opposition and they made it hard for us in the first half. It was hard to find space in the pockets and in behind.

"We corrected a few things and it was great to get three points again and another clean sheet."

At various points during the early stages of this Premier League season, Manchester City and Manchester United had their defensive capabilities called into question by television pundits.

As soon as the opening weekend 3-1 defeat to Crystal Palace, in fact, Gary Neville emptied a bucket of cold water upon transfer speculation surrounding Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's squad.

Speaking on Sky Sports, the former England and United defender gave a damning assessment of Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelof's centre-back capabilities

"You can talk about Jadon Sancho all you like, but until they get a centre-back in that can run and defend one on one, you're never going to win the league," he said.

A weekend later, City were hammered 5-2 at home to Leicester City – a result that immediately preceded the club-record arrival of Ruben Dias from Benfica.

The Portugal international's debut came in a harum-scarum 1-1 draw at Leeds United, after which beIN Sports' anchor Richard Keys offered a more radical solution to Pep Guardiola.

"It can't be that hard, he could go and watch Roy Hodgson work. Or he could bring Sam Allardyce in on a temporary basis."

Things have changed a little since then. City head into Sunday's top-of-the-table clash 14 points clear of United in second and aiming to extend a 21-match winning run across all competitions.

Central to that, and untouched by the hand of Allardyce, is a water-tight defence and the supreme alliance formed by Dias and a rejuvenated John Stones.

Silk and steel

In the 14 Premier League games Dias and Stones have started in tandem, City boast 13 wins and a draw, keeping 11 clean sheets

Goals for each man in last weekend's 2-1 win over West Ham mean they are responsible for four goals at the other end during these matches – one more than the three they have conceded overall.

In his debut Premier League season, Dias boasts a win percentage of 75 per cent thanks to 18 victories from 24 matches.

Stones' own win rate leaps to a frankly absurd 94 per cent, finishing on the winning side in 15 of his 16 Premier League outings in 2020-21. Guardiola's men have only conceded four times with him on the pitch.

Though Keys opined that Guardiola might have been sacked for his "reckless" spending before settling upon Dias, acclaim for the Catalan tactician and his first-choice central defenders has otherwise been close to universal.

Over on the red side of Manchester, however, Neville still isn't happy.

Drawing blanks and protecting keepers

Despite being the centre-back pairing in each of United's five 0-0 Premier League draws in "big six" encounters this season, last month Neville described Lindelof and Maguire as a "problem" to one another on account of their individual attributes.

Demanding defensive changes for a team who have just run up three consecutive goalless draws in all competitions might, on the face of it, look like a fairly off-target conclusion.

However, outside of those matches that were as high on anticipation as they proved low on goals, another picture emerges.

In 20 Premier League games together, Lindelof and Maguire have seven clean sheets this term – only two outside of big-six encounters. United have won half of those games, drawing eight and losing two, leaving them way down on City's 92.9 per cent success rate when Dias and Stones start together.

Overall, United have conceded nearly double the amount City have let in across the Premier League season, with 32 set against 17.

Expected goals on target (xGOT) numbers collected by Opta – figures that illustrate the overall quality of chances faced  - show City's first-choice goalkeeper Ederson is better protected by his defence than United number one David de Gea.

Ederson has conceded 15 times and has an xGOT of 18.61, meaning he has conceded fewer goals than expected, something that cannot be said for De Gea, who will sit out the weekend game after returning home for the birth of his child.

An xGOT figure of 25.9 is outstripped by the 27 the Spain international has let in. Although his negative goals prevented score of 1.1 does Maguire, Lindelof and those others in front of him a slight disservice, he is being given more taxing work to get through than Ederson.

Building from the back

It is not the case that Stones and Dias are flying into numerous last-ditch challenges to spare their goalkeeper, much as they appear to relish that work when it arrives.

A chunk of their value to Guardiola stems from how they are each able to get City swiftly back on the front foot.

Every 90 minutes, Dias averages 16.3 progressive carries, with Stones on 14.7. On this metric, despite his noted ability with the ball at his feet, Maguire tallies 11.8, with Lindelof down on 9.8.

Building play from the back is another non-negotiable for Guardiola's defensive players and City's 161 build-up attacks – open play sequences featuring 10 or more passes that end in a shot or a touch in the opposition penalty area - are the most in the Premier League this season.

Despite the apparent risk they run of playing themselves into trouble, 120 high turnovers against and 14 shot-ending high turnovers are once again the best results in the division.

By contrast, United have conceded 35 shots from high turnovers – the second-worst in the league – from 205 such instances. Solskjaer's men have attempted 91 build-up attacks, suggesting his team create too many problems for themselves.

Stones and Dias have managed their shutouts compilation despite City having the highest defensive line in the Premier League, starting attacks an average of 45.2 metres from their own goal. United's 42.9m is third behind Liverpool, although the lack of pace Neville has highlighted in Solskjaer's first-choice pairing might be encouraging a measure of caution.

Even if Maguire and Lindelof are able to wheel out their effective spoiling act to thwart the City juggernaut this weekend, Neville is right that the bigger picture needs better solutions at his old club. Although, probably nothing as outlandish as suggesting Sam Allardyce as a specialist defensive coach.

Manchester City will be looking to set a new club record for games unbeaten in all competitions when they welcome rivals Manchester United to the Etihad Stadium on Sunday.

Pep Guardiola's men have gone 28 matches since last tasting defeat and have won the last 21 of those, including 15 wins from their last 15 in the Premier League.

The Manchester derby undoubtedly headlines this weekend's fixtures in the English top flight, but there are plenty of other intriguing games at both ends of the division.

Players from six different clubs feature among our Opta-fuelled fantasy picks for what could be a defining few days.

EDOUARD MENDY

Mendy was the busier of the two goalkeepers in Chelsea's goalless draw with Manchester United last weekend as he notched another clean sheet.

He now has six shutouts in his first 10 home Premier League starts, which is the most of any goalkeeper after that number of games in the competition since Alisson's seven for Liverpool at Anfield in 2018.

The only Chelsea keeper with a better return after their first 10 league starts at Stamford Bridge is Petr Cech with eight.


JOHN STONES

City may have conceded in three of their last four league games but their defence remains the strongest in the division, largely thanks to the form of a resurgent Stones.

The league leaders have conceded just four goals in the 1,440 minutes Stones has been on the field in the Premier League this term - one goal every 360 minutes.

That is the joint-best ratio among defenders with more than 300 minutes of involvement in the competition this season, level with Aston Villa's Kortney Hause (one goal conceded across his 360 minutes on the field).

LUKE SHAW

Left-back Shaw is continuing to enjoy his best season for Manchester United, even if the Red Devils are badly struggling for any sort of consistency.

The England international has four Premier League assists to his name in 2021 - more than any other defender - having set up goals for Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Bruno Fernandes, Edinson Cavani and Scott McTominay.

He also leads the way this calendar year for chances created by defenders with 34.

 

PIERRE-EMERICK AUBAMEYANG

Arsenal skipper Aubameyang appears to be returning to his best form after scoring eight goals in his last 10 matches in all competitions.

The Gabon international may have fired a blank as a late substitute against Leicester City last time out, but he will fancy his chances of finding the net in Saturday's trip to Burnley.

That is because Aubameyang has scored seven goals in his six previous Premier League meetings with the Clarets, the most he has netted against any team in the competition.

 

SON HEUNG-MIN

Crystal Palace have recorded back-to-back clean sheets in the Premier League, but if they are to extend that run they will need to keep Son quiet in Sunday's showdown with Tottenham.

The South Korea international tends to enjoy playing against the Eagles, having scored five times and assisted once in seven top-flight starts in this head-to-head.

Son's five goals against Palace is bettered only by the eight he has managed against Southampton.

CHE ADAMS

Southampton's slump continued with defeat to Everton last time out and Ralph Hasenhuttl will know the importance of bringing an end to his side's nine-game winless streak in the league.

The stuttering Saints head to bottom side Sheffield United on Saturday and that could mean a return to scoring ways for out-of-form Adams, who has scored three goals in three appearances against his former employers.

The 24-year-old, who spent two full seasons at Bramall Lane earlier in his career, has not scored more than once again any other Premier League opponent.

 

OLLIE WATKINS

Watkins has gone four matches without scoring in the league, but the statistics suggest you should not lose faith in the Aston Villa striker just yet.

He has netted seven times at home in the Premier League this season - Christian Benteke, with 11 in 2012-13, was the last Villa player to score more in a single top-flight campaign.

The last English player to net more times at Villa Park in a Premier League season, meanwhile, was Darius Vassell in 2001-02 with eight goals.

Pep Guardiola knew Manchester City would be unable to "paint anything beautiful" early in a 2-1 win over West Ham, admitting they were lucky to secure what was a milestone victory for the Spaniard.

The runaway Premier League leaders extended their advantage over nearest rivals Manchester United and Leicester City to 13 points with a staggering 20th consecutive win on Saturday.

Fourth-placed West Ham made life difficult for the champions elect, Michail Antonio equalising late in the first half with the first goal City had conceded at the Etihad Stadium since December.

Ruben Dias had opened the scoring with his first goal for City and John Stones won it when he netted for the fourth time this year with 22 minutes to play.

City were not at their best as Guardiola rung the changes, but the former Barcelona boss was able to celebrate his 200th victory for the club and a 500th win in charge of a top-flight side in all competitions.

Guardiola told BT Sport: "It was really difficult. They have the physicality. They have the quality of players in [Jesse] Lingard, [Pablo] Fornals.

"After 10-15 minutes today we realise we are not going to paint anything beautiful. Second half we were much better than the first half. When you play a lot of games, in the league and then the Champions League, this is normal.

"We were lucky to get all three points. The mathematics matter at the end of the season."

Stones has been outstanding this season alongside record signing Dias and the former Everton man was full of praise for his fellow centre-back.

"I try and chip in [with a goal]," Stones told Sky Sports.

"Some days it doesn't come off for the forwards and today me and Ruben chipped in. It is part of us being a team. We are just glad to get three points and keep the run going.

"I can only give credit to Ruben for moving to a new country and club and how he has played straight away. He has been outstanding.

"We go about our business in our own way and keep fighting. We are playing the football we were a few seasons ago.

"We have fighters in the dressing room. It has been an incredible few months. We are in every competition to try and win them."

John Stones was on target after Ruben Dias scored his first Manchester City goal as the Premier League leaders extended their winning run to 20 matches with a 2-1 victory over West Ham.

Dias opened the scoring with a first-half header, before Michail Antonio levelled just before the break with the first goal City have conceded at the Etihad Stadium since December.

Fourth-placed West Ham were proving to be hard to break down but Stones joined his central defensive partner Dias on the scoresheet to put City back in the lead 22 minutes from time.

The Hammers were unable to respond as City moved 13 points clear of Manchester United and Leicester City, extending their unbeaten run to 27 matches.

Ederson was called into action to block an Antonio header in an encouraging start from the well-drilled Hammers, operating with three centre-backs, but City were in front with their first attempt on the half-hour mark.

Kevin De Bruyne was the architect, delivering a majestic pinpoint left-footed cross for an unmarked Dias to nod beyond Darren Randolph, who until then had been untroubled after stepping in to replace the injured Lukasz Fabianski.

Antonio scuffed a shot against the outside of the post, although Jesse Lingard appeared to be offside, but the Hammers striker equalised two minutes before the break.

Lingard failed to get a clean contact on a cutback from the marauding Vladimir Coufal, but the on-loan Manchester United midfielder's shot was turned in by the alert Antonio.

Randolph continued despite picking up an injury while taking a goal kick, and the Hammers breathed a sigh of relief when there was no City player on hand to turn in De Bruyne's cross at the end of a surging run down the left.

Gabriel Jesus replaced a rusty Sergio Aguero, starved of service in his first start since October, with an hour played, but it was another centre-back who put Pep Guardiola's men back in front.

Riyad Mahrez teased Ben Johnson in the penalty area and picked out Stones, who drilled clinically beyond Randolph after 68 minutes.

Visiting boss David Moyes introduced Jarrod Bowen and Said Benrahma in a bid to salvage a point, which Issa Diop failed to do when he headed wide from close range right at the end as City took another stride towards regaining the title.

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