Manchester City are not ready to put a date on Sergio Aguero's return to action, yet Pep Guardiola expects the club's record goalscorer to "help us in the decisive moments" this season.

Aguero underwent meniscus surgery last June and then saw a hamstring injury hamper his initial comeback in October.

These issues have limited the 32-year-old to just nine appearances in all competitions this season, which have yielded two goals.

Aguero also had to self-isolate earlier in January when he was set for an outing in the FA Cup and last week revealed he had tested positive for coronavirus.

Into the final six months of his City contract, Guardiola is keen to have Aguero back available, although he detailed how the striker was laid low by the effects of COVID-19.

"The important thing is when we text him during the first three, four days, he struggled, he felt so tired, but today he sent a message to the backroom staff to say he feels much better," Guardiola said ahead of Tuesday's trip to West Brom.

"Now he needs to test negative and abide by the protocols, and then start to come back here and move and see how he feels, day by day.

"I cannot tell you [when he will be back], I don't know how he will react in the first days when we start to train."

There have been only three starts for Aguero this term, with his pitch time a meagre 260 minutes overall.

The Argentina international has scored with both of his shots in the Champions League but failed to register in the Premier League, having four efforts across five outings and passing up a big chance with his only shot on target against Newcastle United.

A contract extension remains on the agenda, though, and Guardiola sees Aguero rediscovering the scoring touch that has so far brought 256 goals in 316 games for City, netting with 19 per cent of his attempts.

"I don't know when he is coming back, February or March, but I'm so optimistic that he will give us until the end of the season some good, good months," Guardiola said. "I'm so optimistic.

"He is going to help us in the decisive moments, to give us the goals and the difference that we need. I'm so confident it's going to happen."

In 2018-19, as Vincent Kompany entered the final months of his contract, the former City captain put long-term injury troubles behind him to play a key role in their most recent title success.

Guardiola was asked if the plan was for Aguero to have a similar impact and replied: "Hopefully. Hopefully it's going to happen.

"But at the same time, Vincent had an incredible quality; after being two months injured in the gym, he can go out and play one training session and play incredibly well.

"Sergio doesn't know if he has this quality to immediately go out and do it. He needs the special sharpness and the first steps for this quality to score a goal, but it depends on him.

"At the end, we'll see him in the training session and on the pitch and it's easy to realise if he's fit or not.

"But hopefully he can help us with the special quality he has. That's why he is one of the best strikers ever - not just in England, all the time in football history."

Could Barcelona be about to make a splash in the free-agent market?

Strapped for cash amid the coronavirus pandemic, Barca are believed to have set their sights on two stars.

David Alaba and Sergio Aguero are on the agenda at Camp Nou…

 

TOP STORY – BARCA EYEING OUT-OF-CONTRACT DUO

Barcelona are set to target Bayern Munich star David Alaba and Manchester City's Sergio Aguero , according to Mundo Deportivo.

Alaba and Aguero are both out of contract at the end of the season, prompting interest from embattled LaLiga giants Barca.

Bayern's Alaba has been tipped to join Real Madrid , while the likes of Manchester United , Liverpool and Paris Saint-Germain have also been linked.

Aguero, meanwhile, is no certainty to renew in Manchester, where Pep Guardiola is reportedly eyeing Borussia Dortmund sensation Erling Haaland and Inter's Romelu Lukaku .

 

ROUND-UP

-   Sport reports Raphael Varane wants to leave LaLiga champions Madrid . The French defender has previously been linked to United .

- Madrid cannot afford to sign the likes of PSG star Kylian Mbappe and Haaland due to their current financial situation amid the coronavirus pandemic, claims Marca.

- The Guardian says West Ham have lowered their asking price for Declan Rice , who has been linked to Chelsea and United .

- Martin Odegaard is close to swapping Madrid for Arsenal on loan, reports journalist Fabrizio Romano.

- Romano also says United have not opened talks with Lens to sign Argentine centre-back Facundo Medina . The Red Devils are eyeing a new centre-back amid links with in-demand RB Leipzig star Dayot Upamecano .

Napoli want to sign either Sporting CP full-back Nuno Mendes or Benfica's Nuno Tavares , reports Calciomercato.

- There are serious doubts over Edin Dzeko's future at Roma, with Calciomercato claiming Juventus and Inter are monitoring the situation.

Sergio Aguero has confirmed he is self-isolating after returning a positive test for coronavirus.

The Manchester City striker has missed four straight games after coming into contact with another person who had contracted COVID-19.

Aguero announced his result on Twitter and it is not known when he will be free to return to training.

"After a close contact, I've been self-isolating and the latest test I took was positive for COVID 19," Aguero wrote.

"I had some symptoms and I'm following doctor's orders for recovery. Take care, everyone."

Aguero has played in just five Premier League games and nine matches in all competitions in a stop-start campaign.

Gabriel Jesus, Kevin De Bruyne and Ferran Torres have all been utilised as a central attacking option at times this term.

City are unbeaten in their past 16 matches in all competitions and are just two points off leaders Manchester United in the Premier League with a game in a hand.

Pep Guardiola's men face Cheltenham Town in the FA Cup this weekend and also have league matches with West Brom and Sheffield United within the next 10 days.

Could Harry Kane land in Paris?

With Kylian Mbappe tipped to join Real Madrid, Paris Saint-Germain are reportedly eyeing replacements.

Mauricio Pochettino has a familiar face in mind…

 

TOP STORY – POCH WANTS KANE IF MBAPPE LEAVES

Paris Saint-Germain head coach Mauricio Pochettino wants to sign Tottenham striker Harry Kane, according to El Chiringuito de Jugones.

That is if PSG star Kylian Mbappe leaves the Ligue 1 champions for LaLiga holders Real Madrid.

Pochettino coached Kane for five years at Tottenham before he was sacked by Spurs in November 2019.

 

ROUND-UP

- Sky Sport Germany claims Bayern Munich star David Alaba will not decide on his future until he has spoken to Barcelona. Marca reported that Madrid had struck a deal to sign Alaba on a free transfer at the end of the season. However, Alaba is reportedly holding out for Barca as the likes of Liverpool, Manchester United and PSG try to lure the Austria international.

Martin Odegaard has asked to leave Madrid on loan due to his lack of game time, reports Marca and Diario AS.

Romelu Lukaku has no intention of leaving Inter for City, says Express Sport. Lukaku spent two years at United before moving to Italy in 2019. Pep Guardiola's City have also been linked with Borussia Dortmund star Erling Haaland amid doubts over Sergio Aguero's future.

- Mundo Deportivo claims Manchester City defender Eric Garcia could join Barca this month or at the end of the season.

Milan are eyeing Barca's Junior Firpo on loan, while Serie A rivals Napoli are also interested, according to Calciomercato.

- Eurosport reports Tottenham are looking to prise Danny Ings away from Southampton. Ings is reportedly stalling on a new contract as he eyes a Champions League club.

Pep Guardiola has ruled out Manchester City delving into the transfer market with Sergio Aguero to again be absent when they host Aston Villa on Wednesday.

Aguero has made just five Premier League appearances this season and has missed City's past three games in all competitions while in self-isolation despite testing negative for COVID-19.

Guardiola has used Gabriel Jesus, Kevin De Bruyne and Ferran Torres in the central attacking role during the Argentina international's absence but is not interested in bringing in further options.

The City boss simply replied "no" when asked if the club could look to bolster their options in January after he confirmed Aguero would not return to face Villa.

"He is not ready for tomorrow. He is still isolating," Guardiola said at a news conference on Tuesday.

"We need Aguero, we miss him. The numbers speak for themselves. He's the best striker in our history.

"He can win games by himself and for a long time he has not been with us, but we have not sat here complaining. We moved forward with the players that we have and found alternatives."

Aymeric Laporte has not been part of a matchday squad for City since December 26 but Guardiola confirmed he is nearing a return from a thigh injury.

However, with Ruben Dias and John Stones having developed an incredible centre-back partnership, the City boss warned Laporte it will not be easy for him to regain his spot.

"He is at the last step. He is not ready for tomorrow, but he is training with us. Yesterday was the first one, today was the second," said Guardiola.

"Hopefully [back to face Cheltenham Town on Saturday]. That would be good news. We need him. We cannot play with just Stones and Ruben. We need Nathan [Ake], we need Eric [Garcia], we need Laporte.

"It depends on him [whether he can get into the starting line-up]. The quality is there so if he is in top form and his mind is open he is the best left-sided centre-back.

"He has special qualities on the ball. He has to be focused to come back as best as possible and he will have the minutes. Being in the team or not depends on the performance of everyone."

In the eight Premier League games Stones and Dias have started together, City have dropped just two points and conceded a single goal.

In the nine matches where either one of them has not started, they have conceded 12 at an average of 1.3 per game.

No Premier League defender has been involved in more clean sheets (eight) or has a superior passing accuracy (93.4 per cent) than Dias, whose 78.3 successful passes per 90 minutes are only bettered by Thiago Silva (83.8).

On Dias, Guardiola said: "We knew his quality on the pitch, we knew a bit his personality but we have been impressed at the consistency, being ready mentally and physically to play every three days.

"You always expect the best but we are more than delighted with what he has given to the team.

"[His impact] has been massive, not just with John. He has the ability to live every single action, always concentrated on what he has to do and helping his team-mates. It is not easy to find that in someone who is 23 years old."

Will a Juventus-Paul Pogba reunion become a reality?

The future of Manchester United star continues to dominate headlines.

A move back to Turin could be on the cards for Pogba.

 

TOP STORY – JUVE TO MAKE POGBA OFFER

Serie A champions Juventus will try to prise Paul Pogba from Manchester United at the end of the season, according to the Calciomercato.

Pogba appears set to leave United following the 2020-21 campaign after his agent Mino Raiola claimed the French midfielder was unhappy in Manchester.

Real Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain have been linked but Juve, who signed Pogba from United in 2012 before losing him to the Red Devils four years later, want to bring the World Cup winner back to Turin.

 

ROUND-UP

- The Telegraph reports Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola will be given £200million to spend on new players in the next transfer window. Borussia Dortmund star Erling Haaland and Inter forward Romelu Lukaku are on the list of potential targets, as well as Benfica's Darwin Nunez amid doubts over Sergio Aguero 's future. Haaland has also been linked with neighbours United , Madrid , Barca , Liverpool and Juve .

Bayern Munich are interested in Madrid defender Eder Militao , claims Mundo Deportivo. It comes as Bayern look to replace David Alaba , who is set to leave the Bundesliga champions on a free transfer. Alaba has been tipped to join Madrid .

Milan  are close to re-signing star pair Gianluigi Donnarumma and Hakan Calhanoglu , says Tuttosport. Corriere dello Sport reports Milan are also nearing a deal to sign veteran forward Mario Mandzukic .

- The Athletic claims Mesut Ozil is poised to leave Arsenal for Turkish giants Fenerbahce after reaching an agreement in principle to terminate his Gunners contract.

- The Transfer Window Podcast claims Madrid are considering the possibility of using Eden Hazard in a deal to lure Kylian Mbappe from PSG.

Memphis Depay has been strongly tipped to move to Barca , however, Ok Diario reports the Lyon captain could join Madrid following Luka Jovic's loan return to Eintracht Frankfurt.

Manchester City star Sergio Aguero is reportedly wanted by Barcelona.

Aguero's future at City is uncertain with the 32-year-old coming out of contract at the end of the season.

And the forward is unsurprisingly wanted by Europe's biggest clubs.

 

TOP STORY – BARCELONA WANT AGUERO

Barcelona are eyeing Manchester City forward Sergio Aguero, according to The Sun.

Aguero has also been linked to Paris Saint-Germain as City's all-time leading goalscorer entered the final six months of his contract.

The Argentina international has scored two goals in nine games this season.

 

ROUND-UP

- Staying at Barcelona and Eric Garcia looks set to join the club from City. The cover of Mundo Deportivo says Garcia is poised to move to Barca in January in a deal worth €5million (£4.5m) plus variables.

- Also facing an uncertain future is Fernandinho. The Telegraph reports Fernandinho is undecided about his future, with the City man having offers from South America.

- Matteo Guendouzi is set to see out his loan spell at Hertha Berlin. Fabrizio Romano says the midfielder will not return to Arsenal in January, with the Bundesliga club wanting him to stay until season's end.

- Wolves seem unlikely to sign a forward in January. The Mirror claims they have aborted interested in Liverpool striker Divock Origi and Chelsea's Olivier Giroud.

- With Frank Lampard under pressure at the helm of Chelsea, help could be incoming. Sky Sports reports Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich is considering bringing back former manager Avram Grant to work with Lampard.

Manchester City striker Sergio Aguero is in isolation after coming into contact with someone who tested positive for coronavirus.

Aguero was expected to feature in Sunday's FA Cup clash with Birmingham City at the Etihad Stadium after recovering from knee and hamstring problems.

However, he was not in the matchday squad, with Gabriel Jesus starting the 3-0 victory over the Championship side.

Manager Pep Guardiola later confirmed that 32-year-old Aguero is isolating despite returning a negative test for COVID-19.

"Unfortunately, he was in contact more than usual with one person who is positive," Guardiola said after the match. "He must isolate for a few days.

"I don't know exactly because he has been tested like all of us six times in the last 10-15 days so it is negative. Today I think he was negative too but the protocols says in some cases isolate, and in other cases we still play football.

"He was not able to play today."

Aguero, whose contract expires at the end of the season, has only made three starts for City in all competitions in 2020-21.

In his absence on Sunday, two goals from Bernardo Silva and another from Phil Foden secured City's place in the fourth round of the cup.

Guardiola's men return to Premier League action at home to Brighton and Hove Albion on Wednesday and host Crystal Palace next Sunday.

Paris Saint-Germain are reportedly eyeing Manchester City forward Sergio Aguero.

Aguero, 32, is out of contract at the end of the season and his future with the Premier League giants is uncertain.

And PSG are apparently eyeing the forward.

 

TOP STORY – PSG EYE AGUERO

Mauricio Pochettino and PSG have Aguero in their sights on a free transfer at the end of the season, according to the Mirror.

Injuries have limited Aguero to just nine appearances in all competitions this season.

Aguero is Manchester City's all-time leading scorer with 256 goals.

 

ROUND-UP

- Linked with a move for Borussia Dortmund midfielder Julian Brandt, Arsenal may also be looking elsewhere. Bild reports PSG's Julian Draxler, who is out of contract at the season's end, is an alternative for the Premier League club.

- Also at Arsenal, Mesut Ozil seems set to leave the club. The Guardian reports the playmaker is in talks to join Fenerbahce on loan, but Arsenal do not want to pay any part of his salary if he moves to the Turkish giants.

- Lyon striker Moussa Dembele is again being linked with a switch. Goal reports Dembele is not interested in a move to West Ham, and Atletico Madrid are keen to land him. L'Equipe says Atletico want Dembele on loan.

- Kieran Trippier's ban has been put on hold pending an appeal, but his January reportedly could have been very different. TalkSPORT reports Manchester United were considering a bid for the defender, who was keen on a move, before his ban over betting rule breaches.

- Manchester United are apparently not chasing Moises Caicedo. Fabrizio Romano reports United, who were previously linked to Caicedo, will not sign the Independiente del Valle and Ecuador attacker, who is said to be the subject of a bid from Brighton and Hove Albion.

Sergio Aguero's mood is "better than ever" as he tentatively nears the end of an injury nightmare, according to Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola.

Guardiola confirmed City's all-time top scorer will start Sunday's FA Cup third-round tie against Birmingham City at the Etihad Stadium as he looks to put the after-effects of meniscus surgery behind him.

Aguero underwent an operation in June and has been forced to manage ongoing discomfort in the joint since a hamstring injury at West Ham curtailed his initial return in October.

Despite being ravaged by a coronavirus outbreak among their squad, City head into the weekend buoyed by their two finest performances of the season - a swashbuckling 3-1 win over Chelsea preceding a 2-0 win against rivals Manchester United in the semi-finals of the EFL Cup.

Four minutes from the bench at Stamford Bridge was the sum of Aguero's action across the those games, as he was an unused substitute at Old Trafford.

Nevertheless, his goalscoring prowess has been an obvious miss across the course of the campaign. In their most recent title-winning season, City averaged 2.6 goals per game in the Premier League with Aguero in the side.

That has fallen to 1.6 in all matches this time around, with a win percentage of 53.9 per cent, set against 84.8 with Aguero in harness two seasons ago. Shots per 90 minutes are also down from 18.1 to 15.6 when the two data sets are compared.

"Just look at the numbers, the quality he has in the box, Sergio is unique," Guardiola told a pre-match news conference.

"He has a tough, tough injury. The important thing is his mood is exceptional, I would say better than ever.

"It's important that the feeling, the last two weeks, his knee's reaction was really good after training. This is the best news we can have.

"He’s going to start, the minutes his performance level or knee will dictate. What's important is good quality minutes, as much as possible, we start from the beginning and after we'll see what happens.

"It will be great to have Sergio fit. He’s so optimistic. He says 'I will score goals' and that is the most important thing."

Aguero is out of contract at the end of the season, as is fellow fans' favourite Fernandinho.

The 35-year-old Brazil international has returned to his customary central midfield position this season, having deputised at centre-back for much of last, and completed the scoring with a sweetly struck volley against United in midweek.

Following the departure of David Silva over the close season, Fernandinho has stepped up as club captain and impressed Guardiola greatly with his leadership skills.

"With the players in this part of the season, everything is open," Guardiola said, when discussing the prospect of the veteran earning a fresh deal.

"I am more than impressed with the first captain role of Fernandinho, he is leading in an exceptional way. In the good moments and the bad, bad moments.

"If everyone can take an example of what he has done so far, the team will be stronger."

Pressed for examples of how the quietly spoken star commands the dressing room, Guardiola replied: "How he talks with his mates, how he talks with my assistant coach, before the game, at half-time.

"Not just talking to players about football matters, in life, how to behave in training, every single day. He's the first who proves that he's able to do it.

"That's why he goes to Old Trafford, plays holding midfielder there. It was not easy for Bruno Fernandes to control him.

"At the beginning of the season he stepped forward and showed how to be a captain."

City will have Ederson, Ferran Torres and Tommy Doyle available for selection once more, provided they returned negative COVID-19 tests on Friday.

The trio tested positive ahead of the postponed Premier League match at Everton on December 28.

The date of January 1 is typically the time for New Year's resolutions but for some footballers in Europe's top five leagues it signals the day they can plot a lucrative move to a new club.

A number of top players, including Barcelona's Lionel Messi, are out of contract at the end of the 2021 season and from the start of the year are free to open talks with other teams.

Messi, of course, will be the one that takes the limelight but there are some other big-name players who will be free to leave their clubs for nothing in six months.

Here's the best players (and a couple of pretty good second choices) who are out of contract in 2021 and make up a free transfers XI.

FREE TRANSFERS XI (4-3-3)

GK: Gianluigi Donnarumma (Marko Dmitrovic)
The youngest goalkeeper ever to play for Italy – at 17 years and 189 days – has now matured into one of Serie A's most consistent performers between the sticks. The 21-year-old has been key to Milan's surge to the top of the table with four clean sheets in the league so far this season.

RB: Elseid Hysaj (Kenny Lala)
Comfortable on both the right and left flanks the versatile Albanian full-back, 26, has been a dependable, and largely unsung, part of Napoli's defence since 2015. He may lack the eye-catching assists of attacking defenders but Hysaj uses the ball intelligently in possession.

CB: Eric Garcia (Shkodran Mustafi)
A product of Barcelona's La Masia academy he joined Manchester City in 2017 where Pep Guardiola has been influential in his development. Blessed with an excellent reading of the game, and a superb positional sense, the 19-year-old has rejected a new contract at City and appears hungry for regular first-team football elsewhere.

CB: Sergio Ramos (Jerome Boateng)
The knees might be creaking at the age of 34, but the Real Madrid and Spain centre-back's mix of bloody-minded determination and charismatic leadership make him an asset to nearly any defence despite being at the back end of his career.

LB: David Alaba (Romain Saiss)
Able to operate in defence or midfield the 28-year-old Austria international has spent a decade as one of Bayern Munich's most consistent and reliable players. With nine Bundesliga and two Champions League winners' medals under his belt he has bucketloads of experience at the top level.

CM: Georginio Wijnaldum (Hakan Calhanoglu)
The Dutch midfielder has been converted by Jurgen Klopp from a goalscoring attacker into an intelligent midfield workaholic integral to Liverpool's style of play. Largely unheralded, he is man for the big occasion as his two goals in Liverpool's famous 4-0 comeback win over Barcelona demonstrate.

CM: Fernandinho (Mesut Ozil)
He turns 36 next May, and may lack the bite of old, but the Brazilian still has a lot to offer either as an efficient defensive midfielder or classy centre-back. Another player whose influence and quality may only be fully appreciated by City when he has actually left the club.

CM: Luka Modric (Julian Draxler)
A cultured and experienced midfield playmaker who, despite his diminutive frame, still oozes class whenever he is on the ball. Part of the furniture at Real Madrid since 2012 the 35-year-old Croatian looks like he still has plenty of years at the top ahead of him provided injuries do not take their toll.

RF: Lionel Messi (Florian Thauvin, Lucas Vazquez)
Should he stay or should he go? The transfer saga of 2020 looks set to dominate much of 2021 as well. Barcelona's greatest ever player needs no introduction. Since his debut in October 2004, Barca have won 55.9 per cent of their LaLiga games without Messi (won 66, drawn 39 and lost 22), compared to 73.7 per cent with him in the side (won 368, drawn 83 and lost 48).

CF: Sergio Aguero (Olivier Giroud, Arkadiusz Milik, Diego Costa)
Injury problems appear to be catching up with the 32-year-old Manchester City striker. On his day, there are few better natural finishers around. Aguero has more hat-tricks (12) than anyone else in the Premier League and is the highest non-English scorer in the history of the competition with 180 goals.

LF: Memphis Depay (Angel Di Maria)
A pitiful return of just two league goals in 33 appearances saw him jettisoned by Manchester United in 2017 but since then Depay has rebuilt his career and started to flourish. The Dutch forward has a respectable 62 goals in 154 appearances for Lyon in Ligue 1 and aged 26 is about to hit his peak.

Kevin De Bruyne still runs with the hunger of a non-league footballer despite becoming one of the leading stars in the global game.

That is the assessment of Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola amid a hectic festive schedule where his players' capacity to endure the hard yards will be put to the test.

Goals from Ilkay Gundogan and Ferran Torres saw City swat aside Newcastle United 2-0 on Boxing Day, while back-to-back Premier League away days at Everton and Chelsea before an EFL Cup semi-final at Manchester United on January 6 means this could represent a defining stretch of the season for Guardiola's squad.

De Bruyne completed 90 minutes against Newcastle, the 12th time he has done so in 14 Premier League games this season.

Guardiola has sought to manage his workload elsewhere, with the Belgium playmaker sitting out four Champions League matches as City cruised through their group.

Last week's 4-1 EFL Cup quarter-final win at Arsenal came with De Bruyne convalescing back in Manchester and, with City bunched into a congested pack behind defending champions Liverpool, Guardiola wants to have last season's PFA Players' Player of the Year firing on all cylinders in the top flight.

"We need him. Kevin is one of the biggest stars in the world right now and runs without the ball like he is a player from the Conference," he said, acknowledging the 29-year-old's seeming inability to play without the throttle down

"He is an outstanding player, I know how important he is for us.

"Sometimes, for example, like in the game against Arsenal, he did not travel. I prefer to have him fit and focused in the Premier League.

"The other competitions are important but right now we don't want to be far, far away from the top of the league.

"We are going to find our rhythm and we are going to be close to the top of the league, hopefully in the last eight or 10 games of the league, being there to fight against the teams above us."

Ahead of Monday's game at Goodison Park, De Bruyne has covered 127.5 kilometres in the Premier League this season, second only to Rodri in the City squad, although the Spain international has started every match to clock up 148.5 km.

With 179 sprints, De Bruyne is only behind noted speedsters Raheem Sterling (254) and Kyle Walker (219) this term.

His famed creativity remains undimmed, with only Jack Grealish (49) and Bruno Fernandes (44) crafting more goalscoring opportunities than De Bruyne (42).

Seven assists, all from open play, put him second in the division behind Harry Kane (10).

These numbers have been amassed despite City rarely being close to their thrilling best collectively in 2020-21, although Guardiola spotted some encouraging signs in that regard against Newcastle.

"[I'm happy] because we played really well. We played at the tempo [we need to]," he explained.

"We won games in the recent past, this season, where we were not playing in the right tempo.

"Football is time. Without the ball everybody runs, but with the ball we have to play in one rhythm and not to hide.

"You don't just pass the ball. Everyone has to be in his position. Then, in the right moment, several players in several positions make an explosion. This was maybe one of the first days that we saw it [this season]."

Close-range misses, with Raheem Sterling once again among the culprits, remained a feature of the performance - City scored from just two of their seven 'big chances' - meaning Sergio Aguero closing in on full-match fitness is a timely boost.

"We missed two goals from four or five yards to the goal line. It always happens, we have to improve this. We know it," Guardiola added, having introduced City's all-time leading scorer Aguero for a substitute cameo against Newcastle.

"The very good news is the 15 or 20 minutes Sergio played we saw him sharp, dynamic and good. This is incredible news for is. We need him. Absolutely."

Gabriel Jesus was a surprise absentee and Sergio Aguero only made the bench as Manchester City attempted to return to winning ways at Southampton in the Premier League. 

Brazilian striker Jesus has scored just twice in the Premier League this season, but it was fitness rather than form which saw him sidelined for the clash with Saints on Saturday.

City said Jesus and defender Aymeric Laporte, also missing from the 20-man matchday squad, were "not fully fit" for the match at St Mary's.

Aguero, however, was healthy enough to take his place among the nine substitutes - upped this week from seven in a move to allow for concussion replacements.

The striker has struggled for fitness this season and missed training after the West Brom game, but he took part on Friday, giving manager Pep Guardiola the option to use him at some point.

Ferran Torres and Raheem Sterling led the City attack, as Guardiola made four chances from the midweek draw with West Brom.

Torres, Kyle Walker, John Stones and Bernardo Silva all came into the XI as Jesus, Phil Foden, Nathan Ake and Benjamin Mendy made way.

Goal-shy City, unusually struggling to put the ball in the net this season, went into the game on the south coast 11 points behind leaders Liverpool, albeit with two games in hand, after Jurgen Klopp's men thrashed Crystal Palace 7-0 at Selhurst Park.

The loss of Jesus comes amid a disappointing run of form for the striker in this season's Premier League. He has failed to score in his last five appearances, despite playing the full 90 minutes each time.

He had just three shots in total across his last three games, suggesting he was perhaps due a spell out of the team, regardless of fitness.

Torres, however, has fared similarly disappointingly on the goals front, netting once in 422 minutes in this season's Premier League, with a dismal shot conversion rate - including blocks - of 7.14 per cent. 

City stood four points behind Southampton going into the game.

Just under a month ago, Manchester City excitedly announced Pep Guardiola had extended his contract with the club until 2023, but the news was curious in that the response from supporters and media alike was somewhat muted.

While the fact it was only a new two-year deal may have contributed to that, with respect to fans there seemed to be trepidation as to whether Guardiola was still getting the results – stylistically as well as wins – many expected.

Although some will have dismissed the signs of City turning stale as natural by-products of a turbulent year for the sport, others undoubtedly began to voice concern at City's performances and the lack of intensity Guardiola's team have shown.

And City have arguably got worse since the news of his extension broke – their four wins in the past nine games across all competitions have been against Olympiacos, Burnley, Fulham and Marseille.

They lost to title hopefuls Tottenham and produced largely insipid displays against Manchester United and West Brom.

City will end the weekend 11 points adrift of the summit if they lose to high-flying Southampton and Liverpool beat Crystal Palace – something is not right at the Etihad Stadium.

 

IMPOTENT CITY

In 2019-20, many put the 18-point deficit between champions Liverpool and City down to the latter's apparent defensive frailties, though in reality they only conceded two more goals than the Reds.

Nevertheless, City bolstered their backline with Ruben Dias and Nathan Ake, and although still by no means perfect, their 12 goals conceded this season is the joint-best in the division with Tottenham.

However, perhaps they would have been better off diverting some of that transfer focus to the attack. As Opta data shows, there is little doubt where their problems lie this term.

Firstly, City's haul of 18 goals from their first 12 league matches is by far their lowest under Guardiola and almost half the 35 they managed by the same point last term.

The most recent season where they had a worse scoring record at this stage was 2010-11 (15 goals), though they had one more point (21) than they do now, with 20 the fewest City have accumulated by this stage since 13 in 2008-09.

Obviously, you need to shoot to score, so it makes sense that City are having fewer shots than before as well – they've tried their luck 194 times this term, a decrease from 258 at this point in 2019-20. Their previous low in this respect under Guardiola was 206 after 12 games in 2017-18, but their conversion rate was off the charts at 19.4 per cent.

The closest City have got to that in any other season with Guardiola was 14.6 per cent the following year – this term it is just 9.3 per cent. It's the only campaign under the Catalan coach in which their conversion rate is below 13 per cent after 12 games.

 

NO LONGER INTIMIDATING

The intimidating aura City have had under Guardiola appears to have vanished, their one-paced performances against United and the Baggies evidence of that.

Last season City won 12 matches across all competitions by at least a four-goal margin, yet, as we approach the halfway mark this term, they have done so just twice.

One of those was, of course, against Burnley at the end of last month – though one might argue this doesn't say much about City given that was the fourth time in a little over two years they have beaten the Clarets 5-0.

But City's goalscoring issues can be further amplified beyond just looking at how often they're scoring, and once again it makes for unpleasant viewing for Guardiola.

Compared to his previous four seasons in charge, City's touches in the opposing box have come down to 32.4 per game (it was 42.6 in 2019-20) and that understandably has a knock-on effect.

In every season under Guardiola before 2020-21, City have improved their goalscoring chance quality (excluding penalties) before a massive regression this term. In 2019-20, their non-penalty xG (expected goals) per game was 2.25 – it is now just 1.38.

Even accounting for those excluded penalties, there is still a huge drop-off from 2.48 to 1.57 per game.

Their average non-penalty shot xG rating is 0.087, meaning one would expect the 'average' player to score 8.7 per cent of the time – again, this is a significant drop from 11.6 per cent in 2019-20.

 

DE BRUYNE OR BUST

Given City's issues in front of goal seemingly coincide with Sergio Aguero's absences, it might seem logical to link the two, but Opta data shows City's record with and without him since August 2011 is very similar.

In Aguero's 266 Premier League appearances, City have averaged 2.2 points and 2.3 goals per game – those figures remain identical for the 88 matches he has missed, while the team's win percentage actually goes up to 69.3 from 66.9.

As City's underwhelming xG data suggests, their problem has been chance creation, which again leads us back to the suggestion that – in hindsight – perhaps they would have been better off adding further reinforcements to their frontline.

Kevin De Bruyne has of course remained a dependable star, as evidenced by his 10 assists in 15 appearances across all competitions – he is well on track to surpass his 22 from 48 games last term.

 

But the Belgian does appear to be playing a different role. Whether this is to compensate for David Silva's exit or for other attack-minded players' productivity decreasing, it is unclear, but his season heatmaps show De Bruyne is operating almost equally across the breadth of the final third – in 2019-20, he was at his most influential towards the right flank.

His creativity has suffered, though he is still playing 3.51 key passes per 90 minutes in the league (4.51 in 2019-20). It's in front of goal where his influence has decreased the most, however, as De Bruyne has scored only twice all season, or once every 591 minutes, and both have been penalties. His frequency was once every 239 minutes last season across all competitions.

 

The problem for City is that, although De Bruyne continues to carry the burden, other players expected to create in the final third are struggling.

Bernardo Silva (0.24 from 2.26), Phil Foden (1.07 from 1.82), Raheem Sterling (1.38 from 1.62) are all playing fewer key passes per game than last term, while new signing Ferran Torres (1.07) – although clearly a talented player – has not been able to pick up the slack left by David Silva's departure (2.41).

The only player who seems to have remained consistent is arguably the most-maligned among City's forwards – Riyad Mahrez. He plays 2.76 key passes on average per 90 minutes – it was 2.78 in 2019-20.

Given Aguero's quality in front of goal, it seems unlikely he wouldn't at the very least lead to a marginal improvement when he returns for good, but if one thing is clear, it's that City's creators have to get craftier.

Pep Guardiola has praised John Stones for his impressive recent form and made it clear all members of his Manchester City squad must be ready to play when required.

Stones has started three Premier League games in a row alongside Ruben Dias in the heart of the City defence, all of which have resulted in clean sheets.

The England international has seized his chance since earning a recall - he played in the 3-1 win over Wolves to open the league campaign, but had not featured in the competition prior to starting the 5-0 victory over Burnley on November 28.

His form has seen him keep Aymeric Laporte out of the line-up, though Guardiola is not interested in any complaints about a lack of minutes from within his squad, considering the crowded schedule City face in the coming weeks during the festive period.

"It depends on the performance," the City boss said when asked about Stones' selection ahead of Laporte during his media conference on Monday.

"John is performing well, so that's why he's playing. But there are a lot of games and anything can happen.

"Everyone has to be ready, I've told them that many times. Don't complain much, because around the corner you have the chance. Maybe not, but you have to be ready."

City drew 0-0 at Manchester United on Saturday in an uneventful derby, making it the third successive game against their neighbours in which they have failed to score.

It was just the fifth goalless draw between the sides in 47 Premier League meetings, albeit three of those stalemates have come in the last 11 clashes.

Guardiola was unable to call upon Sergio Aguero at Old Trafford due to illness, but the striker has returned to training and could be involved against West Brom on Tuesday.

"Today he has trained, the last two or three days he did not. After today's training, we will decide on Tuesday," Guardiola said.

"Eric Garcia is still not fit, Oleksandr Zinchenko neither. The rest are okay."

Aguero has been hampered by injuries this season, restricting the club's all-time leading scorer to just five appearances in all competitions.

City will be expected to return to winning ways when they host West Brom regardless of Aguero's availability, having won 13 on the spin against their next opponents in the league.

Indeed, the visitors have never recorded a victory at the Etihad Stadium, their last away success over City coming at Maine Road back in February 2003.

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