We are in the home stretch in the Premier League, which means everything is at stake – in the fantasy leagues, that is.

It is that time of the year when fantasy managers start to go over which games matter at opposite ends of the table to maximise points hauls.

Stats Perform has you covered with some Opta-powered recommendations below, so here are our suggestions for a new goalkeeper, defender, midfielder and striker.

EDERSON (Manchester City v Newcastle United)

Following their dramatic Champions League exit at the hands of Real Madrid, there is a possibility Manchester City players might actually breathe fire on Sunday against Newcastle United.

It will likely mean sporadic and low-quality opportunities for the Toon and, ultimately, light work for Ederson in City's goal.

Another clean sheet for the Brazil international will see him record at least 20 in a Premier League season for the second time, the last being in 2018-19. The next best to Ederson's 90 clean sheets since 2017-18 is Liverpool's Alisson, with 64.

GABRIEL MAGALHAES (Arsenal v Leeds United)

Arsenal's Champions League hopes could hinge on this weekend, with nearest rivals Tottenham coming up against Liverpool. The Gunners need points against favourable opponents.

Only Chelsea's Reece James (five) has scored more Premier League goals for defenders this season than Gabriel's four for Arsenal, with all of them coming from corner situations.

With that in mind, Leeds are one of the five sides in the Premier League this season to have conceded at least 10 goals from corners.

DEJAN KULUSEVSKI (Liverpool v Tottenham)

However, Arsenal's need to pick up points against Leeds does not mean Tottenham players are off-limits, and Antonio Conte's side on the counter-attack are a tough proposition for any club in Europe.

Dejan Kulusevski has come to life at Spurs after a middling spell at Juventus, with no player in Europe's top five leagues providing more assists since his first start in the Premier League. 

On top of Kulusevski's eight assists, only Son Heung-min (15) and Harry Kane (14) have been involved in more Premier League goals than him (11) over the same period.

RICHARLISON (Leicester City v Everton)

Leicester's struggles in possession once again came to the fore on Thursday against Roma, and on Sunday they will have to back up against one of the Premier League's most dynamic players in transition.

Richarlison has almost single-handedly propelled Everton's push for Premier League survival, with six involvements in their last eight goals.

At this rate (12 goal involvements), the Brazil international is on track to match his tally of 16 from the 2019-20 season.

Alisson sees similarities between himself and Brazil colleague Ederson but accepts the Manchester City goalkeeper "looks more cool".

Liverpool keeper Alisson moved to the Premier League in 2018, 12 months after Ederson had signed for City.

The two have since set the standard in England and beyond, establishing themselves as two of the best shot-stoppers in world football.

Alisson has the gloves for Brazil, earning 54 caps to Ederson's 18, but there is little to separate the pair.

They each have 17 clean sheets in the Premier League this season – five more than their nearest rivals – while only Josa Sa (10.0) and David de Gea (6.0) have prevented more goals according to expected goals on target data.

Alisson has saved 75.6 per cent of the on-target shots he has faced, preventing 1.7 goals, with Ederson's save percentage of 71.0 slightly lower as he has prevented 1.8 goals.

Where Ederson comes out on top, though, is with the ball at his feet. Alisson's passing accuracy of 84.8 per cent ranks second among Premier League keepers but trails his countryman's outstanding 88.4 per cent. The City man is the only keeper in the division to complete more than half of his long passes (56.4 per cent), too.

Ederson's ability in possession was on show last week in a moment that garnered plenty of attention when Alisson and Liverpool visited the Etihad Stadium for a 2-2 draw.

A rare slack touch in his six-yard box, with Diogo Jota closing in, did not concern Ederson, who calmly played a square pass along his goal-line – showing the cool that makes him stand out.

 

"Ederson is a fantastic goalkeeper, fantastic guy as well, really nice," Alisson told Liverpool's official website ahead of another meeting with City in the FA Cup semi-finals.

"We have a good relationship playing together in the national team, fighting for a place in the team. 

"The things that he has achieved with his team as well are big, the level he's playing as well is high. 

"He's among the top goalkeepers in the world – maybe top three, four in my opinion. One of the best with the feet, if not the best. 

"I think we have a similar approach to the game. We are calm on the pitch, calm with the ball, players who like to play with the team as well, like to build up. We also play with teams who like to build up from behind – not only long kicks. This helps us. 

"I think he looks more cool than me – sometimes I am more angry or put more energy on things.

"Each one of us has our own skills, our own characters, but we are performing really well and in a consistent way as well."

Ederson's unerring calm was highlighted by Pep Guardiola this week, telling reporters: "This guy is crazy, honestly. Sometimes, I think, if he doesn't feel something...

"For me, for a keeper, it's top to have that feeling. Concede a goal? He's calm. Make a save? He's calm. He's so stable and, as a keeper, it's fantastic.

"For the people outside, it's completely different. In that moment, I thought it couldn't be as close [to the line]; after, I saw the image on TV. It's one inch to the goal, and it doesn't matter."

Manchester City and Liverpool goalkeepers Ederson and Alisson are two of the best shot-stoppers in world football, and David James concedes it is a struggle to pick an outright favourite.

Brazil duo Ederson and Alisson will meet on Sunday as Manchester City host Liverpool in a crucial game in the Premier League title race.

The goalkeepers have been the standout shot-stoppers in the Premier League in recent seasons. While Ederson has three league titles to his name, Alisson has helped Liverpool to a top-flight triumph and Champions League success.

This season, both goalkeepers have performed to similarly high levels. Alisson has made 60 saves in the league from 78 shots on target faced, leaving him with a save percentage of 76.9, while Ederson has made 50 stops, registering a save percentage of 72.3.

Based on Opta's expected goals on target conceded (xGOT) model, Alisson has performed slightly better when it comes to the number of goals he has prevented with the quality of his shot-stopping.

Alisson has prevented 2.9 goals in the top-flight, while Ederson has prevented 1.7.

With the margins between the pair so tight, former England number one James says it is difficult to pick which goalie he prefers.

"My favourite two goalkeepers in the Premier League, absolutely," the former City and Liverpool goalkeeper told Stats Perform.

"Even off the field, these two guys are fantastic people. I can admire them from the goalkeeping art, but when you've got wonderful people doing it, then it just adds another layer to it.

"They're very good friends as well, which makes it even more interesting, team-mates on the international scene, your mates off the field, and then you're competing in pretty much every tournament."

 

However, James does believe that Alisson, due to Liverpool's more open style of play, is tested more regularly.

"If I had a favourite, it's very difficult because their attributes are different," he continued.

"When you look at Ederson, the guy who can kick the ball 90 metres, hardly ever kicks the ball 40 metres, and everything is pretty much played in his own half now.

"It's more a demonstration of the dominance of City and because of that dominance he's not actually being called upon so much.

"Whereas if you look at Allison, who's got the freedom to get an assist if he wants, but has been called upon time and again, this even going into the game on the weekend, you're looking at it and thinking well 'case history would argue that Allison has made more saves in the last two months, possibly in one game than Ederson has had to do'.

"So Allison's kind of winning at the moment because he's doing more but I wouldn't want to pick one as my ultimate favourite."

Pep Guardiola has full confidence in Oleksandr Zinchenko's readiness to feature for Manchester City against Sporting CP.

Zinchenko has played just once for City since his homeland of Ukraine was invaded by Russia, an attack that began on February 24.

That appearance came against Peterborough United in the FA Cup, with Zinchenko captaining City in a 2-0 win.

However, the 25-year-old seems set to start again as City host Sporting in the second leg of their Champions League last-16 tie.

City hold a 5-0 lead from the first leg in Lisbon, but Guardiola claimed he only has three defenders fit for Wednesday's meeting at the Etihad Stadium.

Kyle Walker is suspended and Joao Cancelo, who has been playing at left-back, is unwell. Nathan Ake has still not recovered from injury while Ruben Dias is expected to miss a month due to a hamstring problem.

As such, Zinchenko is likely to feature, but Guardiola insists the full-back is in the right frame of mind to feature.

"He's ready, of course it's not an easy period for him but he will be ready if he has to play," Guardiola told a news conference.

Prior to Guardiola's appearance in front of the media, City goalkeeper Ederson explained the support Zinchenko has from his team-mates.

"It's a very difficult moment for him. It's his country. His family are there, living in these anguishing moments," Ederson told reporters.

"For us who don't live there it is difficult. Can you imagine what it is like for him? It is hard to see your team-mate suffer and the civilians suffering in the country.

"We try to give him strength and bring some joy into his day but we know how difficult that is. I hope it resolves and the country can get back to normality.

"It will be very difficult due to the damage being done, the amount of innocent people that are dying due to a war that is nothing to do with them."

Ederson is full of confidence that Manchester City can go on to win a domestic and European treble this season.

City missed out on their usual EFL Cup triumph this term, a trophy they had lifted four times in a row under Pep Guardiola.

However, they are six points clear at the top of the Premier League, albeit having played a game more than title rivals Liverpool, while they are into the quarter-finals of the FA Cup.

Southampton stand in the way of a semi-final trip to Wembley in that competition, while City also have one foot into the last eight of the Champions League.

Last year's runners-up thrashed Sporting CP 5-0 in the last-16 first leg last month, meaning the return fixture in Manchester on Wednesday should prove a formality.

"Definitely," Ederson told a news conference when asked if City had eyes on a treble, which would be the second of Guardiola's tenure after an EFL Cup, FA Cup and Premier League triumph in 2018-19.

"We know how difficult it is. A season here in England is very intense, especially around the Boxing Day period when there are a lot of games in a short space of time. That is very demanding on the entire group.

"We know how difficult it is, but we have the quality to do this. We've shown this previously and we're showing it at the moment. I think we're fully capable of meeting this achievement."

City are yet to win the Champions League, with last season's final defeat to Chelsea in Porto the closest the club has come.

"Last season we had the opportunity but lost in the final," Ederson said.

"Our goal is to go into every tournament to win. We have to take things step by step to progress. We know there are challenges in every competition. Every game has its own challenges and [you] have to take things step by step to achieve great things in the future."

City's victory in Lisbon represented the joint-biggest winning margin away from home in the knockout stages in Champions League history. The largest first-leg deficit to be overturned in the competition is four goals, Barcelona having famously thrashed Paris Saint-Germain 6-1 in March 2017 after losing the away leg 4-0.

City have won each of their past six home matches in the knockout stages of the Champions League and could tie a record that has been reached on five occasions previously, while Sporting have failed to keep a clean sheet in any of their most recent 13 away matches in the tournament, conceding 31 goals in the process (2.4 per game).

The Premier League is a week away from its winter break, but a feast of football awaits us before then, along with fantasy point-scoring opportunities.

Leaders Manchester City head to Southampton and will look to extend their 12-game winning run in the competition, at the expense of opponents who are unbeaten in their last seven league games at St Mary's.

Manchester United have a tricky assignment against David Moyes' West Ham, and you might consider a Hammers forward to break down Ralf Rangnick's defence at Old Trafford.

If the time is right to back your strong start to the season, there are proven fantasy league performers to choose from here among this week's picks, and a strong case to be made for others you may not have considered.

EDERSON (Southampton v Manchester City)

Pep Guardiola's trusted City goalkeeper has kept more Premier League clean sheets (12) and faced fewer shots on target per 90 minutes (2.2) than any other goalkeeper this season.

City have faced 50 shots on target across 22 games and have conceded only 13 goals, so another shut-out must be a realistic proposition on the south coast.

Ederson has played in all but one of those Premier League assignments for City this term, and although Southampton have won three and drawn four of their last seven 2021-22 home league games – their best record since going nine unbeaten from March to October 2016 – it is the visitors who start this clash as strong favourites.

JOAO CANCELO (Southampton v Manchester City)

City's defence has been close to watertight this season, but Cancelo's role at full-back is more than just about stopping the opposition.

Only the Liverpool duo of Trent Alexander-Arnold (10) and Andrew Robertson (6) have provided more Premier League assists among defenders this season than Cancelo (5).

He has also had 44 goal attempts, with 15 of them finding the target, and his tally of one goal scored will surely grow soon enough.

DAVINSON SANCHEZ (Chelsea v Tottenham)

Can Tottenham be trusted to keep a clean sheet against Chelsea, in Sunday's headline game? This choice would represent a gamble, albeit one that can to an extent be rationalised by data.

Since December 1, Sanchez has been involved in a Tottenham defence that has kept four clean sheets in seven Premier League appearances. Indeed, only Manchester City's Aymeric Laporte (5) has kept more clean sheets during that time among top-flight defenders. New boss Antonio Conte is making a difference at Spurs, no doubt about it.

The counter-argument here comes with the fact Chelsea have won five of their last six league games against Spurs (D1), and beat them in both legs of the EFL Cup semi-finals.

RAPHINHA (Leeds United v Newcastle United)

Leeds United have woken from their slumber in the Premier League, winning twice in a row to climb to 15th place, just three points behind Leicester City in 10th spot.

Last time out it was Jack Harrison who was the hero, with a hat-trick at West Ham, but Raphinha is their Mr Consistency.

The Brazilian set up Harrison's match-winning third goal at the London Stadium, and since the beginning of the 2020-21 Premier League season, Raphinha is one of just five players to have registered 10 or more goals, 10 or more assists and created over 100 chances in the English top division.

JARROD BOWEN (Manchester United v West Ham)

Former Hull City forward Bowen has been involved in 13 goals in the Premier League this season (6 goals, 7 assists) and opponents Manchester United will be wary of his quality.

Indeed, only Mohamed Salah (25) and Bowen's West Ham team-mate Michail Antonio (14) have been involved in more Premier League goals this term.

To strike a slight note of caution, Bowen only has an expected assists (xA) total of 2.94, meaning West Ham have made more of his chances created than they would ordinarily be expected to, while Bowen is slightly lagging behind his expected goals (xG) total of 8.29. That said, the Red Devils will surely not underestimate his threat.

ROBERTO FIRMINO (Crystal Palace v Liverpool)

With Salah and Sadio Mane still away at the Africa Cup of Nations, Brazilian forward Firmino again looks set for a starting role as the Reds travel to Selhurst Park on Sunday.

Firmino has been involved in six Premier League goals against Palace in his last five appearances (4 goals, 2 assists), having been involved in just two across his first seven games against the Eagles in the competition (2 goals).

Starting with a double in a 7-0 win in this exact fixture last season, each of Firmino's last 10 Premier League goals have all come away from home. Liverpool have won their last six Premier League away games against Palace.

ALLAN SAINT-MAXIMIN (Leeds United v Newcastle United)

Can Newcastle beat the drop? Their best hope before the transfer window opened up a new world of possibilities appeared to lie with the fast feet of Saint-Maximin, and he remains their star attacker for now.

The French winger has scored in each of his last two Premier League appearances, with those goals earning 1-1 draws with Manchester United and Watford.

Now here lies the problem with trusting such form: he has never scored in three successive appearances in the competition. However, Saint-Maximin did score in the reverse fixture against Leeds in September, another 1-1 result for the Magpies.

It's the most wonderful time of the year… To many that means Christmas, to some it means a packed festive football schedule!

While the relentless flow of Premier League matches at this time of year might seem like overkill for the players, it's a somewhat bizarre British tradition that shows no sign of stopping.

The swift turnaround between matchdays barely gives players a moment to catch their breath, and fantasy football managers (don't say we're not thinking about the big issues…!) have to react quickly as well if they're to make the most of the action.

But if you're one of those players who's liable to forget to make changes around this time of year because you slept through the deadline after eating too much leftover Christmas dinner, Stats Perform has some player tips that might just come in handy for each of the next two matchdays…
 

EDERSON (Manchester City v Leicester City, and Brentford v Manchester City)

Sure, Leicester may have impressed against Liverpool in midweek, but Man City have been impressively resolute at the back again this season.

Unsurprisingly, Ederson leads the way with 10 clean sheets in 2021-22, making him virtually a must-select if you're worried about potentially forgetting to change your goalkeeper between matchdays.

No on else in the division has reached double figures for clean sheets yet this term, and City will fancy their chances of getting a shutout at Brentford in their second game post-Christmas.

EMILE SMITH ROWE (Norwich City v Arsenal, and Arsenal v Wolves)

Christmas time, Emile Smith Rowe and wine…

Forgive us the bad pun, but like mistletoe, Smith Rowe is a solid choice for some festive joy, particularly given Arsenal have two very winnable matches on the horizon.

Ahead of their Boxing Day trip to Norfolk, Smith Rowe is the joint-second highest-scoring Englishman in the Premier League this term with seven goals, highlighting just how much of a threat he's been in 2021-22.

Three of those have come in his last three games as well – hopefully he's the gift that keeps giving.

MARCUS RASHFORD (Newcastle United v Manchester United, and Manchester United v Burnley)

Remember Manchester United? It feels like it's been about two months since they last played, so they'll surely be raring to go when they face Newcastle at St James' Park on Monday.

Myrrhcus (sorry) Rashford will presumably be even more excited than the rest of the team, such is his record against the Magpies.

The England star has seven goal involvements in as many meetings with Newcastle (four goals, three assists), making them his favourite opposition.

Additionally, Newcastle have won just once all season, so there's every chance it won't just be the Christmas turkey getting stuffed.

HARRY KANE (Tottenham v Crystal Palace, and Southampton v Tottenham)

Spurs star Harry Kane loves Boxing Day, so much so that these days he's arguably more synonymous with Christmas than his namesake, Candy.

He'll be hopeful of stocking up again this year as he is just one behind Robbie Fowler's record of nine Boxing Day goals – it's worth saying he looked sharp against Liverpool at the weekend, so who's to say he won't sleigh Crystal Palace?

A trip to Southampton awaits after that, and Saints haven't exactly been watertight at the back recently, conceding 12 goals in their past five Premier League games.

Sergio Aguero has confirmed his retirement, at the age of 33.

The Barcelona forward announced his decision in a statement on Wednesday that was delivered at an event featuring president Joan Laporta and the club's first-team players.

Aguero, who starred for Atletico Madrid before becoming a Manchester City great, suffered chest pain in the draw with Deportivo Alaves on October 30, which the club confirmed was down to a heart arrhythmia.

He scored just one goal for Barca – an injury time consolation in October's Clasico defeat to Real Madrid.

But it will be his time at City that will be most fondly remembered, and he undoubtedly goes down as one of the club's greatest signings.

Aguero's arrival in 2011 came three years after the Abu Dhabi United Group's stunning takeover of City drastically altered the trajectory of the club and the Premier League.

September 1, 2008 began with news of City's new ownership group – funded by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan's lavish wealth – and ended with the club-record signing of Robinho from Real Madrid, after an unlikely deadline day tug-of-war with Manchester United for Tottenham's Dimitar Berbatov.

Stats Perform marks Aguero's retirement by looking at City's best signings of the Mansour era.

DAVID SILVA

Often regarded as City's finest ever player, the mercurial playmaker arrived from Valencia for £25million in 2010 with a newly acquired World Cup winners' medal in his pocket. Silva has been integral to every City title triumph since. Whether gilding around in Roberto Mancini's powerful line-up, dazzling as the creative inspiration under Manuel Pellegrini or lifting Pep Guardiola's current vintage to new heights, City were always been a significantly better team with Silva in the line-up.

He left for Real Sociedad following the expiration of his contract in 2020, the coronavirus pandemic robbing him of a farewell in front of fans at the Etihad Stadium.

YAYA TOURE

Derided in some quarters as an over-priced defensive midfielder when he joined from Barcelona for £24m during the same close-season as Silva, Toure proved to be so, so much more. The most dominant and complete midfield presence of the era, he became City's 'clutch' player, amassing a collection of memorable goals in Wembley showpieces and title run-ins.

The towering Ivorian was indisputably at his peak when he scored a staggering 20 Premier League goals from central midfield on the way to the title in 2013-14.

SERGIO AGUERO

Aguero scored 30 or more goals in all competitions in five separate seasons during his time at City, for whom he netted 16 hat-tricks. He is the fourth-highest scoring player in Premier League history with 184 goals in 275 games, behind Alan Shearer (260), Wayne Rooney (208) and Andrew Cole (187), making him the highest-scoring overseas player, and he also holds the Premier League record for most goals scored at one club.

The most famous of them all will always be that incredible, last-gasp, Premier League-title clinching winner against QPR in 2012. His 259th and 260th goals for City came in the form of a double from the bench in a 5-0 rout of Everton in front of 10,000 supporters at the end of the 2020-21 season. 

KEVIN DE BRUYNE

Eyebrows were raised when City broke their transfer record to bring in the reigning Bundesliga Player of the Year from Wolfsburg in August 2015 following his failed spell at Chelsea. The Belgium star soon made the £55m fee seem wholly worthwhile as a relentless work-rate, vast range of passing and rasping shot from either foot established him as one of the leading lights in England's top flight.

An assist machine he was Guardiola's standout performer as City stormed to Premier League glory in 2017-18, 2018-19 and 2020-21, while his injury in last season's Champions League final was a huge blow to the Citizens as they went down 1-0 to Chelsea.

EDERSON  

Guardiola spent heavily on defensive reinforcements as he overhauled the squad left to him by Pellegrini but nobody has been a more important recruit for the Catalan than the man stationed behind his backline. Ederson brought much-needed authority to City's defence after Claudio Bravo's haphazard first season, while his composure and skill with the ball at his feet has come to define the team's style.

Without the Brazil international, it would have been impossible for Guardiola to so fully realise his footballing vision at the Etihad Stadium, and Ederson has also proved a fantastic shot-stopper. Indeed, Saturday's win over Wolves brought up his 100th clean sheet for the club in just 212 games.

RUBEN DIAS

With Vincent Kompany having left in 2019, City struggled to replace their talismanic leader the following season. Indeed, he had scored a brilliant, crucial goal as Guardiola's team went on to edge out Liverpool in the 2018-19 title race.

However, they found the heir to Kompany's throne a year later with the £65m purchase of Ruben Dias from Benfica. The centre-back slotted straight into the side and has become the key cog in a formidable defence. He was named Footballer of the Year by the FWA after his first season with City and signed a new six-year deal in August.

Premier League games are coming thick and fast, with European competition now on hiatus until the New Year.

The next few weeks provide fantasy football managers with a great opportunity to quickly rack up the points, but smart selections will be more important than at any other point of the season as rotation takes place amid the congested schedule.

In our latest batch of picks, Manchester City and Chelsea are particularly well represented, while a Manchester United talent will be hoping to kick-start his campaign.

Squeezing all of these into your team might be a little costly, but there is plenty of evidence to suggest they will reward you handsomely.

EDERSON (Manchester City v Wolves)

Brazil international Ederson is usually a pretty safe bet between the posts in fantasy football – you could argue this weekend makes him an even more interesting option.

For starters, no one has more than his 26 Premier League clean sheets since the start of last season, and then there's the form of visitors Wolves.

Bruno Lage's men have scored just once in their past five league games, the fewest in the division. Is that clean sheet number 27 incoming?

JOAO CANCELO (Manchester City v Wolves)

For the reasons mentioned above and also the fact Wolves' 12 Premier League goals this term are the second-fewest after Norwich City, you might be inclined to get as many City defenders in your team as possible.

If that is your tactic, Joao Cancelo should be your first pick given he also offers a threat going forward. Granted, he's not scored yet this season, but the statistics would suggest it's only a matter of time.

Based on the quality of chances that have gone his way, Cancelo's 1.88 expected goals (xG) is the third-highest among players not to score in 2021-22 – he's also had the most shots (33) of all the goalless players. Surely his luck will turn soon?

REECE JAMES (Chelsea v Leeds United)

If we're honest, you should probably have Reece James in your team already given how good he's been this season – but if you've not got him, consider this your final warning.

The England international is thriving in Thomas Tuchel's wing-back-friendly system, boasting comfortably the most goal involvements per 90 minutes (0.98) among Premier League defenders. Ben Chilwell is second with 0.67.

He's creating 2.47 chances per 90 minutes, a figure only bettered by Kostas Tsimikas and Trent Alexander-Arnold, while he's level with Chilwell for the most touches in the opposition's penalty area (4.33).

MARCUS RASHFORD (Norwich City v Manchester United)

It's been a slow start to the season for Marcus Rashford, who missed the first few weeks due to injury and has subsequently struggled to build up sharpness.

But if there's any opposition he'd back himself to impress against, Norwich would be the one.

In 149 minutes played against the Canaries, Rashford has four goal involvements (three scored, one assisted) – that works out at one every 37 minutes.

Only against Sunderland, whom he's played only 26 minutes against, does Rashford have a better record.

MASON MOUNT (Chelsea v Leeds United)

A curious quirk of Tuchel's time at Chelsea has been the lack of goals scored by recognised strikers, but that's translated into a healthy spread across the squad.

Mason Mount is Chelsea's top scorer in the league since Tuchel took charge, his nine efforts three more than anyone else. Similarly, his six assists also represent a club-high.

Mount's recent purple patch has undoubtedly played a role in that, with the England international both scoring and assisting in three of his past four top-flight starts.

GABRIEL JESUS (Manchester City v Wolves)

He may not have been expecting to play such a regular role for City this term, but Gabriel Jesus has been quietly effective out on the right flank.

Jesus will be keen to build on his fine record in clashes with Wolves, too, having scored in all of his three previous league starts against the Molineux club.

That equates to a total of five goals – only against Everton (eight) has Jesus scored more, although he's played 256 more minutes in meetings with the Toffees.

JOSHUA KING (Brentford v Watford)

If Watford are going to avoid the drop, Joshua King will have to play an important role. He's certainly shown signs of his quality this season, such as his hat-trick at former club Everton back in October.

That's contributed to him registering nine goal involvements in his past nine away starts in the Premier League.

Granted, that run does stretch back to 2020 and his time with Bournemouth, so it only counts for so much, but at the very least it suggests he can be an effective option when Watford's backs are against the wall.

Manchester City star Ederson does not believe he has been a huge influence on the way goalkeepers in England play as he bids to keep a 100th clean sheet for the club.

The Brazil international will reach a century of shut-outs on Saturday if he does not concede against Watford, a team who have never beaten City in the Premier League and lost the previous 10 meetings by an aggregate score of 37-4.

Since signing from Benfica in 2017, Ederson has been an integral part of Pep Guardiola's set-up, his distribution proving both a valuable counter-attacking weapon and a vital component to City's possession-based approach.

However, he feels the importance of keepers using their feet is simply part of the evolution of the game.

"Nowadays, having a goalkeeper with good feet is essential in any team that likes to build up play from the back," he told Sky Sports.

"I don't think I influenced much. In fact, I have been influenced by other goalkeepers with good feet in the past. But football evolves and players need to evolve with the game as well.

"I just play naturally. It's a matter of concentration. If a goalkeeper misses a pass, there is nobody there who can help you. The goalkeeper is key in our team because we can't make any mistakes in the build-up. But my team-mates offer me a lot of options for the pass, so I'm very relaxed."

Since his City debut, Ederson has created six goalscoring chances, a tally bettered by two keepers in that time: Ben Foster (nine) and Nick Pope (10), each of whom have played for teams with a more direct style.

His contribution to his side's overall approach dwarfs that of any other keeper, though. Ederson has been involved in 226 sequences to end in a shot in the Premier League, with Alisson (138) and David de Gea (127) the next highest on that list. Thirty-four of those involvements have ended in a goal, which is at least 14 more than any other keeper has managed.

Ederson has also started 66 shot-ending sequences, 22 more than anyone else in his position since his debut, having made 3,390 passes in that time – again, by far the most among keepers.

There may be an element of risk to the way Ederson plays, but it is not without its reward: no keeper comes close to his 78 clean sheets in the league since his arrival in England, and his brilliant save to deny Carney Chukwuemeka helped City win 2-1 at Aston Villa on Wednesday.

"The most important things for a goalkeeper are concentration and decision-making," he said. "In most of the games, we control the ball and we only concede one chance to the opposition team, so concentration is key.

"It's something that comes with my personality: calm and concentration," he adds. "I'm aware that, if I lose focus during any moment of the game, it can end up in a goal for the opponent.

"We can't be attacking all the time, so we need to know how to defend during some stages of the game too. We all know, myself and my team-mates, how important it is to be focused."

On the prospect of 100 clean sheets in what would be his 211th appearance, he added: "It's an important achievement for me, because it means I have kept a clean sheet in almost half of my games for Manchester City.

"The forwards, the midfielders, the defenders, they all do exceptional pressing and defending. The clean sheets involve the whole team, not just me."

Goalkeeper Zack Steffen has signed a new contract at Manchester City and immediately vowed to keep the pressure up on Ederson.

United States international Steffen has agreed terms on a new deal which will keep him with City until June 2025.

The 26-year-old joined City in July 2019 and spent the majority of the 2019-20 season on loan with Bundesliga club Fortuna Dusseldorf, where he kept two clean sheets in 17 appearances, conceding 36 goals and making 64 saves.

Since his return to City his appearances have largely been restricted to cup competitions and he was an ever-present in the side which won the EFL Cup last season.

He has had made two Premier League appearances for City, conceding one goal and keeping one clean sheet.

"This is a fantastic moment me – I am so happy to be committing my future to Manchester City," Steffen told City's website.

"In my opinion, this is the best team in world football, with the best manager and best coaching set-up. It's a privilege to be here and contribute to this team achieving its targets.

"I feel I learn every day and I have definitely improved as a goalkeeper since coming here. I contributed to our success last season, which was an amazing experience.

"I want to keep pushing Ederson every single day and take my chances when they arrive."

Steffen, who has been capped 24 times by his country and played in MLS for Columbus Crew, fits the profile of what City boss Pep Guardiola wants from a goalkeeper, according to director of Football Txiki Begiristain.

He added: "Zack is an excellent goalkeeper and a brilliant professional who brings so much to Pep's squad.

"He fits the blueprint of what a Manchester City goalkeeper should be. Not only is great with his hands, but he is also calm on the ball and provides outstanding distribution, which is a vital part of our style.

"This is a man who trains to an exceptionally high standard every single day. He always wants to learn and improve.

"Our coaching staff love having him here and we want to see him continue his development over the next years."

Brazil have summoned eight Premier League players for October's World Cup qualifiers – and former Middlesbrough star Juninho is hopeful a deal will be struck to avoid more quarantine chaos.

Coach Tite called nine English-based stars for the last batch of internationals at the start of September, but none travelled, with top-flight English clubs refusing to release a number of players travelling to countries on the United Kingdom's travel red list.

Anyone returning from those countries would have been required to quarantine in a hotel for 10 days upon their return, regardless of vaccination status, which was an unacceptable situation for the clubs.

There are hopes that a deal can be struck to allow footballers to travel in bubble conditions, with Juninho pointing to talks involving the Premier League, world football's governing body FIFA and British government officials.

At one point last month it appeared the players who did not join their national teams could be obligated to miss club games, effectively as a punishment, but that threat eventually receded.

Some Premier League players did travel to their national teams, however, and Tottenham's Giovani Lo Celso and Cristian Romero, plus Aston Villa's Emiliano Martinez, joined up with Argentina. They were then at the centre of incredible scenes in Sao Paulo when Brazilian health authority officials stormed onto the pitch to stop the Selecao's game against Argentina proceeding.

Brazil's travel rules demand individuals to isolate if they have been in the UK within 14 days of their arrival in the country.

The English-based contingent selected by Brazil for October's games includes captain Thiago Silva, goalkeepers Alisson and Ederson, Fred, Gabriel Jesus and Roberto Firmino. Everton's Richarlison misses out due to a knee injury, but Leeds United's Raphinha and Tottenham's Emerson Royal are in the squad.

Juninho, now a co-ordinator of the Brazil national team, said the players were selected this time because of the belief a solution could be found.

"There have been several meetings with FIFA, the Premier League and the British government," Juninho said, quoted on Brazilian sport website Lance.

"We trust that next week there will be a resolution on these cases."

Brazil travel to play Venezuela on October 7 and Colombia three days later, before a home clash in Manaus against Uruguay on October 14.

The players are due to assemble in Bogota, Colombia, on October 4. Brazil's eight wins from eight have put them firmly at the front of the race to qualify for next year's finals in Qatar.

 

Brazil squad: Alisson (Liverpool), Ederson (Manchester City), Weverton (Palmeiras); Danilo (Juventus), Emerson Royal (Tottenham), Alex Sandro (Juventus), Guilherme Arana (Atletico Mineiro), Thiago Silva (Chelsea), Marquinhos (Paris Saint-Germain), Eder Militao (Real Madrid), Lucas Verissimo (Benfica); Casemiro (Real Madrid), Fabinho (Liverpool), Gerson (Marseille), Everton Ribeiro (Flamengo), Fred (Manchester United), Lucas Paqueta (Lyon), Edenilson (Internacional); Gabriel Jesus (Manchester City), Antony (Ajax), Raphinha (Leeds United), Gabi (Flamengo), Matheus Cunha (Atletico Madrid), Neymar (Paris Saint-Germain), Vinicius Junior (Real Madrid).

Central and South American players who were barred from travelling to World Cup qualifiers by their Premier League teams will be available this weekend after their countries backed down from a request to ban them under FIFA rules. 

Players from Brazil, Mexico, Chile and Paraguay are cleared to play as their national federations agreed late Friday to waive a measure that would have compelled the players to sit out after their clubs refused to release them for international duty. 

Premier League teams last month decided to prevent players from nations on the United Kingdom's COVID-19 "red list" to participate in Qatar 2022 qualifiers, citing the UK's requirement that people who have travelled to those countries quarantine for 10 days upon their return. 

There had been some indications earlier Friday that the players might be available, but official word did not come down until shortly before midnight London time. 

Brazilians now available to their clubs Saturday include Ederson and Gabriel Jesus of Manchester City, Chelsea's Thiago Silva and Manchester United's Fred. 

Among players from other nations involved, Wolves can use Mexico's Raul Jimenez on Saturday, while Newcastle will have Paraguay's Miguel Almiron available, and Watford can play Chile's Francisco Sierralta 

Liverpool will be most relieved, with Alisson, Fabinho and Roberto Firmino cleared to face Raphina and Leeds on Sunday. 

Earlier Friday, Jurgen Klopp said at a news conference that he hoped a solution could be reached for the benefit of all parties involved. 

"It is a really difficult situation and really tricky for all the clubs, and the players especially," Klopp said. "We should not forget at this moment that the players wanted to play these games, the clubs wanted to let the players go but it was not possible."

Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola hit out at the "crazy" decision from the Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF) to invoke a FIFA suspension for Ederson and Gabriel Jesus.

City duo Ederson and Jesus were – among the majority of other South American players in the Premier League – not released by their clubs for the recent round of World Cup qualifiers on the continent.

Premier League clubs unanimously agreed last month they would refuse to release players called up by nations that are on the British government's travel red list amid the coronavirus pandemic.

All of South America is on this list, and players would have had to quarantine in a hotel for 10 days upon their arrival back in the United Kingdom, leaving them unavailable for at least two league games and next week's European fixtures.

Spurs trio Davinson Sanchez, Giovani Lo Celso and Cristian Romero nevertheless joined up with Colombia and Argentina respectively, while Aston Villa's Emiliano Martinez and Emiliano Buendia also travelled, though the Argentine contingent agreed to return early.

However, Martinez, Lo Celso and Romero were at the centre of incredible scenes in Sao Paulo last weekend when Brazilian health authority officials stormed onto the pitch to detain the trio, as Brazil's travel rules demand individuals to isolate if they have been in the UK within 14 days of their arrival in the country.

Explaining his frustration and confusion, Guardiola pointed to this fact after Brazil invoked a FIFA ruling to prevent clubs from fielding the players they did not release.

Ahead of Saturday's trip to Leicester City, Guardiola told a news conference on Friday: "Right now it still isn't clear, hopefully they can play, we will wait and see tomorrow if there is some good news. The club didn't inform me of anything. So we are going to wait and see if they can play or not.

"I don't understand the situation for the fact that I don't know what we can do. It's an honour for us that our players go and play for the countries where they are born. It's no problem at all.

"It's difficult to justify for me that the Argentina players who play in the Premier League, they go to Brazil and they were not allowed to play, and the Brazilian players who should have travelled to play this game would have been completely the same.

"So if they travelled there, they wouldn't have been able to play because of the quarantine there. If they do it so they [fly to Brazil] but cannot play in Brazil and after when they came back they could not play here for 10 days. And if they don't fly, then after they are suspended for five days because they were here. So it makes no sense.

"Argentina travelled with some players, the police were on the pitch, and they could not play the game because they didn't follow the protocol.

"So it would have happened with the Brazil players. And after the federation from Brazil asked FIFA to ban these players that cannot travel to play with them, but they could not play there, and now they could not play here? It's crazy."

With Zack Steffen isolating in the United States having tested positive for COVID-19, Guardiola will likely have to call on veteran goalkeeper Scott Carson to make just his second City appearance if Ederson is rendered unavailable – the former England international's only previous outing being in a 4-3 win over Newcastle United back in May, his first top-flight appearance in a decade.

Ferran Torres scored a hat-trick in that match and, after netting twice against Arsenal last time out, has now been involved in six goals in his last six league appearances. 

Jesus, playing on the right of City's front three, has also made a strong start to the season and would be a miss for Guardiola's team. Indeed, the forward has only scored more times against Everton (eight) in the Premier League than he has in meetings with Leicester (five).

Guardiola was at least able to offer positive news on the fitness of Phil Foden and Kevin De Bruyne.

"Yesterday Phil made the first training session, and Kevin was training alone and then with the players still here," he said. "They're feeling much better."

Pep Guardiola will take the mental health of his international stars into consideration as Manchester City prepare for a quick turnaround into the new season.

The Premier League champions went down to a 1-0 Community Shield defeat against Leicester City on Saturday, their former striker Kelechi Iheanacho coming off the bench to win and convert a late penalty at Wembley.

Guardiola remained without Raheem Sterling, Phil Foden, Kyle Walker, John Stones, Ederson and Gabriel Jesus after their respective runs to the finals of Euro 2020 and the Copa America with England and Brazil.

The sextet will return to training on Monday, while Kevin De Bruyne is still on the mend after an ankle injury sustained during Belgium's progress to the quarter-finals of the European Championship.

Aymeric Laporte – a Euros semi-finalist with Spain – must self-isolate until the middle of next week because a passenger on his flight back to the United Kingdom after a vacation tested positive for COVID-19. The defender has tested negative.

It adds up to a far-from-ideal preparation for next weekend's league opener at Tottenham, a fixture likely to be lent a tempestuous edge by City's pursuit of Harry Kane.

Nevertheless, Guardiola knows a return to peak physical fitness will come in time, even though he again took aim at scheduling arrangements by UEFA and FIFA in his post-match comments at Wembley.

The former Barcelona boss is more concerned about the mental strain endured by players who have been on a near non-stop schedule since returning to action from the coronavirus lockdown last June.

Asked whether his England players would benefit from being afforded an extra week of rest, he replied: "It depends on their heads. They have to rest and now they can be ready, but it depends on here [the head].

On whether his returning internationals would be ready to play at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, Guardiola replied: "A few players get the condition so quick, others need a little more time. We will see the weight, the body fat, how they arrive. And especially their heads.

"There are players who play three, four or five days and their mentality is positive and they are ready to fight and suffer in the bad conditions. Some of them take a little more time.

"We will try to discover which ones are ready immediately."

Foden is unlikely to be among that group, given he must still recover from the foot injury that ruled him out of England's penalty shoot-out loss to Italy.

Stones was an ever-present at centre-back for Gareth Southgate's side, while Sterling and Walker were each named in the UEFA Team of the Tournament.

"All of them, they played really well. I'm glad and happy for them. They have had many years together," Guardiola said.

"They made an incredible achievement. When you achieve a final in the Euro it's a big, big thing.

"They have to be so proud of what they have done with the national team. The benefits to the confidence will be there.

"But the past is the past. What you have done with the national team is for the memories. The challenge is ahead of us to do a good season."

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