Pep Guardiola insists he has to treat all of Manchester City's players as equals after Raheem Sterling suggested he is open to leaving the Premier League champions.

In an interview released on Thursday, England forward Sterling told the Financial Times that he is contemplating a move away from City in order to secure regular game time.

Sterling has been a consistent figure in Guardiola's all-conquering City team since 2016, though his form tailed off last season and he was used sparingly in the latter half of the last term.

The 26-year-old still started the Champions League final before heading off to star at Euro 2020 with England, but has played only 274 minutes of Premier League football so far with just two starts.

 

Guardiola was unaware of Sterling's thoughts on potentially leaving City, though insists he cannot treat any of his players differently or assure them of regular minutes.

"Raheem is our player, we are happy with an incredibly important player for us," Guardiola told a news conference ahead of Saturday's match with Burnley.

"Some players want to play all the time but I cannot assure them, they know it. I cannot assure how many minutes everyone is going to play. Always they have to speak on the pitch, that is the best moment.

"Not only Raheem, all of them. What I want is for everyone to be happy, satisfied to be here, delighted to be at this club. If this is not the case they are free to take the decision that is best for him.

"They have to be happy. More game time, I understand completely. I was a football player and all the time I wanted to play."

Asked how difficult leaving high-calibre players out of his starting XI is, Guardiola said: "Of course it's not easy. Raheem played in the final of the Champions League. He's an important player.

"But I have to treat Cole Palmer the same as Kevin De Bruyne. Why should I treat De Bruyne differently to Palmer? Both have parents, a girlfriend, a wife, friends. There's no reason why. I have to treat players the same.

"In my career, important players have not played in important games. I take decisions that are best for the team, not for the players and not for me."

Another player who has found his game time limited in 2021-22 is John Stones. The centre-back is yet to feature at all for City this term, despite enjoying a brilliant 2020-21 in which he made 35 appearances, helping City to 30 victories and keeping 19 clean sheets.

 

Yet Guardiola seemed to suggest Stones' attitude and desire to improve set him in good stead in comparison to how other players treat being out of the team.

"John was such an important player for us last season because he played incredibly well alongside Ruben [Dias]. This season, Aymeric [Laporte] played incredibly well alongside Ruben and it's fair to let him play," Guardiola said.

"John is an exceptional guy, knows the situation and always is fighting. Some players play more than the other ones, but it is normal. I would love to give them all minutes, but I cannot assure them. Not John, not Ruben, not Kevin, not Phil Foden. Everyone has to try to do it on the pitch.

"Raheem is so important for us, but he competes with Jack Grealish, Phil, Ferran [Torres], Gabriel [Jesus], Bernardo [Silva]. This is the reality at the top clubs. Sometimes it's difficult. Train harder, and in the moment you play, show you are right.

"Some players accept more, like John for example. There are players, they suffer more. It happens in all the clubs around the world. You have to fight and at the end there is a transfer window and you have to decide what you want to do.

"I don't want to see the players unhappy or upset or whatever. It is not the end of the world. There are many clubs, you can do whatever you want, we don't push barriers. Make a phone call to the club and sort the situation.

"I am not talking about Raheem. I am talking in general.  The transfer window is the moment to decide. When it's finished, you have to respect my decisions, I'm the manager. I don't take the decision to benefit the players."

England captain Harry Kane is hopeful UEFA will take stern action against Hungary should allegations of racist behaviour from some of their supporters be proven.

The Three Lions shrugged off any hangover from the Euro 2020 final defeat to Italy with an emphatic 4-0 win in Budapest on Thursday.

Kane, Raheem Sterling, Harry Maguire and Declan Rice got on the scoresheet as Gareth Southgate's side kept themselves on track to qualify for the 2022 World Cup.

However, in a hostile atmosphere at the Puskas Arena, the win could have been marred by reported racist chants that were said to have been directed at some England players. The visiting team were booed when they took the knee prior to kick-off.

Asked by ITV if he had heard any chants, Kane said: "I didn't hear that. Obviously that's something I'll talk to the boys [about] and see if any of them heard any of it.

"We'll have to report it to UEFA as the rules permit and if it is the case hopefully UEFA can come down strong."

Maguire too claimed he had not heard any chants first hand.

"It was disappointing to hear the boos but it has happened in previous games, we knew what to expect but I am happy all the boys stood by it," the centre-back told BBC Radio 5Live.

"I have spoken to a couple of lads, I did not hear them myself and if it did happen then I am disappointed.

"Three, four of us did not hear them but you guys can hear them more clearly on TV."

Maguire's defensive partner John Stones told BBC Sport: "Personally I didn't hear it, but was told about it after.

"It's so sad to think about that this happens at our games. I hope UEFA or whoever needs to take care of it does. We stand together as a team and did do before the game and we will continue fighting for what we believe in as a team and what we think is right."

In 2019, Bulgaria were handed a punishment of playing two games behind closed doors – with one suspended for two years – after a section of fans racially abused England players during a Euro 2020 qualifier in Sofia.

England won the game 6-0, with play having to be stopped twice due to the chanting. UEFA also fined Bulgaria's football association €75,000.

John Stones has backed "fearless" Jack Grealish to make an immediate impact at Manchester City following his arrival from Aston Villa for a British-record £100million fee.

England international Grealish was confirmed as a City player last week and made his debut as a second-half substitute in Sunday's 1-0 Community Shield defeat to Leicester City.

The 25-year-old played 25 minutes in that annual curtain-raising fixture, managing 25 touches of the ball and completing 15 of his 16 passes during his time on the pitch.

He is in contention to start City's opening Premier League fixture against Tottenham next Sunday and Stones is excited by what his international team-mate will bring to the side.

"Jack's an incredible footballer. A raw talent. I think you can see he is a bit fearless in how he plays and very direct," Stones told City's official website.

"We only saw a little bit of him in the Euros, but when he came on everyone was excited to see him and he came on and gave some vital assists at key moments.

"He is a big game player. An incredible person as well. He is coming into one of the best dressing rooms in the world non-football wise, with the characters we have here and he will fit in straight away.

"I am sure he will be looking forward to more success here and hopefully winning some silverware."

Stones was speaking after signing a new long-term contract at the Etihad Stadium that keeps him tied down to City until June 2026.

Former Everton defender Stones has spent the past five seasons with City and played an integral part in last term's Premier League and EFL Cup double.

City kept 19 clean sheets across the centre-back's 35 appearances in 2020-21 and conceded only 16 times with him on the field.

The 27-year-old's 24 blocks in 2020-21 were his most in a single season at City, while 32 tackles and 146 recoveries were above his average numbers over the past five seasons.

It marked quite the turnaround for Stones, who struggled for form and fitness during 2019-20 and came close to leaving the club.

And the Barnsley academy product has thanked Pep Guardiola and City's coaching staff for the faith shown in him.

"I think everyone, coaching staff, all the other staff that are here, from day one made me feel so welcome," Stones said.

"Everyone plays a major part in our success as players. I appreciate what everyone does for me here as a person.

"It is hard to say, but they have had a big impact on me and it was an easy decision for me to put pen to paper again. I feel like this is home and I absolutely love the place."

England defender John Stones has signed a new five-year contract at Manchester City, committing him to the Premier League champions until June 2026.

Stones joined City from Everton in 2016 for £47.5million, becoming one of Pep Guardiola's first major signings at the Etihad Stadium.

It has not always been plain sailing for the 27-year-old, however, and struggles for form and fitness during 2019-20 saw him fall out of the reckoning at international level, while Guardiola conceded he could leave the club.

Had Eric Garcia not opted to run his contract down in order to join Barcelona on a free transfer, that might well have been the case, but Stones stayed to forge an impressive partnership with new arrival Ruben Dias in central defence as City claimed their third Premier League title in four seasons.

Guardiola's men also lifted a fourth consecutive EFL Cup – the Wembley winner against Tottenham scored by Aymeric Laporte, who was dislodged as a first-choice selection by Stones during the 2020-21 campaign – and the Barnsley-born centre-back has won eight major honours overall during his five seasons in Manchester.

Stones' form earned a recall from England boss Gareth Southgate and he was an ever-present as the Three Lions plotted a path to the final of Euro 2020.

"I couldn't be happier. I love being part of this squad. There are so many quality players here and I know we can continue winning trophies, which is my main focus," Stones said, before hailing Guardiola's influence upon his development.

"Working with the manager is a dream. He has taught me so much about the game and I feel like I learn something new every single day.

"The success we've had in the last four years has been incredible. To be a part of it has been a dream come true and I just want to continue winning.

"This is the best place for me to play my football and fulfil my ambitions."

City's director of football Txiki Begiristain paid tribute to "an exceptional footballer and a fantastic defender".

"We knew when we signed him that we were getting a talented centre-back, but he has really matured in his five years here and, as we saw last season, is at the top of his game right now," he said.

"John has been an important part of our recent success and we believe he can continue to help us achieve our goals, so for him to commit his best years to us is a major boost for the club."

England defender John Stones has signed a new five-year contract at Manchester City, committing him to the Premier League champions until June 2026.

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."

Italy ended their 53-year wait for a second European Championship crown with victory over England in the Euro 2020 final at Wembley.

Leonardo Bonucci cancelled out an early Luke Shaw goal to take the game to extra time and then penalties, which the Azzurri edged 3-2 to inflict heartbreak on hosts England.

Italy's triumph was deserved on the basis of the qualifying campaign and the tournament itself; Roberto Mancini's side have now gone 34 games unbeaten in all competitions.

England can also be proud of their run, and it is perhaps no surprise that the two finalists dominate Stats Perform's best XI of the tournament.

Portugal forward Cristiano Ronaldo is also included in our Opta data-driven side, along with players from Switzerland, Spain, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic.

 

Goalkeeper: Yann Sommer (Switzerland)

Gianluigi Donnarumma may have been named UEFA's Player of the Tournament for his penalty shoot-out heroics against Spain and Italy, but Sommer gets the nod after enjoying an incredible tournament.

The Swiss goalkeeper saved a Kylian Mbappe penalty in his side's shoot-out win against France in the last 16 and made a tournament-high 21 saves in total, 10 of those coming in the eventual defeat to Spain on penalties in the quarter-finals.

 

Right-back: Denzel Dumfries (Netherlands)

Dumfries' reputation was certainly enhanced during Euro 2020, even if the Netherlands were sent packing by the Czech Republic at the last-16 stage.

He became just the second ever Netherlands player, after Ruud van Nistelrooy, to score in his first two European Championship appearances, while also helping his side to a couple of clean sheets in his four outings.

Centre-back: Leonardo Bonucci (Italy)

Juventus defender Bonucci was a rock at the heart of Italy's defence, particularly in the quarter-finals when frustrating Belgium's plethora of attackers.

No defender made more interceptions than the 34-year-old (12, level with Ukraine's Mykola Matvienko), and it was his bundled finish that drew his country level against England in the final.

Centre-back: John Stones (England)

England conceded just two goals all tournament, with only one of those coming in open play. A large part of that was down to ever-present defender Stones, who carried his club form with Manchester City onto the international stage.

Stones won 20 aerial challenges – the joint-second most of any defender in the competition, one behind Harry Maguire – and his 447 successful passes placed him behind only Jordi Alba (458) and club-mate Aymeric Laporte (644).

Left-back: Luke Shaw (England)

Shaw was left out for England's opening game against Croatia, but the full-back soon made himself a consistent presence. He was even compared to the great Roberto Carlos after starring with two assists against Ukraine in the quarter-finals.

The Manchester United defender provided three assists in total and netted the fastest-ever goal in a European Championship final with his volley against Italy. Those four goal involvements were bettered only by Patrik Schick (five) and Ronaldo (six).

 

Central midfield: Marco Verratti (Italy)

The Paris Saint-Germain midfielder was a major fitness doubt for the tournament and sat out Italy's first two matches, but boy did he make an impact in the following five games.

Since his first game against Wales on June 20, all-rounder Verratti ranked first among all midfielders at Euro 2020 for chances created (14), passes completed (388), progressive carries (59), tackles (18) and recoveries of possession (37).

Central midfield: Pedri (Spain)

A number of young players enjoyed a breakthrough tournament at this edition of the Euros, arguably none more so than Barcelona superstar in the making Pedri, who made more passes in the opposing half (348) than any other player at the Euros.

He became the second European player to start as many as five games at the age of 18 or below in major tournament history, after Northern Ireland's Norman Whiteside. Proving age is just a number, Pedri completed all 55 of his passes in regular time in the semi-final loss to Italy.

Right wing: Federico Chiesa (Italy)

Versatile wide player Chiesa was always going to be one to watch at the Euros, having stepped up on the big occasions for Juventus last season with goals in key matches, including their Coppa Italia triumph against Atalanta.

He scored Italy's extra-time opener in their last-16 win against Austria and put his side ahead against Spain in the semi-finals. He was not afraid to shoot – only three others did so on more occasions – and was arguably Italy's most dangerous player in the final.

Attacking midfield: Patrik Schick (Czech Republic)

Schick not only scored the joint-most goals, his five strikes putting him level with Ronaldo, but he was responsible for surely the most memorable one of the lot - a 49.7-yard lob against Scotland, the furthest ever distance a goal has been scored at a European Championships.

The Bayer Leverkusen forward found the net in all but one of his side's games, with three of his goals coming from open play, compared to just two for Golden Boot winner Ronaldo.

 

Left wing: Raheem Sterling (England)

England's run to the final would not have been possible if not for the fine form of Sterling, the Manchester City winger responsible for his side's first three goals in the competition.

That includes winning strikes against Croatia and the Czech Republic in the group stage, followed by the opener against Germany in the last 16, before assisting Kane's early goal against Ukraine. Even when not scoring he was a real threat, leading the way with 20 dribbles completed – four more than next player on the list in Frenkie de Jong.

Centre-forward: Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal)

Even though it was far from a vintage tournament for Ronaldo and dethroned champions Portugal, the Juventus superstar still claimed the Golden Boot accolade thanks to having one assist more than fellow five-goal forward Schick.

Ronaldo's 72 minutes per goal was the best return of any player to have played at least three times in the tournament. His haul also moved him level with Iran great Ali Daei as the all-time leading goalscorer in men's international football with 109, a record that he will get a chance to break later this year.

 

John Stones lauded Gareth Southgate's "unique" management as the Manchester City defender prepares for England's Euro 2020 final showdown with Italy.

Stones has started every game for the Three Lions at the tournament, with only goalkeeper Jordan Pickford (570) playing more minutes than the centre-back (559), who has also attempted more passes (424) than any other England player.

The 27-year-old has helped keep five clean sheets, with England having set a new national record for not conceding a goal before Mikkel Damsgaard's free-kick found the net in Wednesday's semi-final win over Denmark.

Southgate has made some brave, and at times unpopular, decisions throughout the tournament, though the vast majority have so far come off, with England having progressed to the final of a major tournament for the first time since 1966, and just the second time in history.

While England approached group-stage games against Croatia, Scotland and the Czech Republic with caution, the attack clicked into gear in a 4-0 quarter-final hammering of Ukraine, following a 2-0 win over Germany in the last 16.

England then had 20 shots to Denmark's six in the semi-final clash at Wembley, with the squad's strength in depth and spirit once more on show.

"Every manager I've had is definitely unique and has their own philosophy," Stones told a news conference when asked about Southgate's impact.

"I think Gareth's created an unbelievable culture within our squad and calmness, it's his unique quality as a person and a manager. He's got great staff around him and an incredible squad with great characters in that, one of his best characteristics is his calmness under pressure.

"His willingness to win – I think that shines through, when you've got a manager with that quality, it passes through the team, you soon jump on board.

"He's got a unique quality of staying calm and it passes through the team. [Against Denmark] it was the first time we had been to extra time [at Euro 2020], we stayed calm, stuck to the game plan and it worked.

"We don't need to change anything, we cover every aspect in our preparation."

 

England were among the pre-tournament favourites, though their run to the final has been impressive, if the performances have not quite matched some of those by Sunday's opponents Italy.

Stones, alongside first Tyrone Mings and then Harry Maguire, has been particularly sharp, continuing his form after a season in which he defied the odds at City.

Indeed, at this time in 2020, Stones was being linked with a move away from City, yet the former Everton and Barnsley defender fought back to become a key figure for Pep Guardiola and now Southgate.

"It's something we've only dreamed of at the start of the tournament, but we've got this far, we're here now and we've just grown and grown throughout the tournament, not put too much pressure on ourselves," Stones said of England's run.

"We've overcome some tough tests over the past few years, learned a lot of things, gained a lot of experience and all the learning curves. A massive occasion.

"We're approaching this game how we would any other at club level or whatever competition we're in. The England team, whoever has contributed, everyone is giving everything for that shirt and the nation. We all loved the England team growing up, being able to play now, we cherish it, it's a special moment for us to do that." 

Asked if his struggles at City had helped shape him, Stones – who did not feature for England last year – replied: "Yes, a little bit, all those times have made me who I am.

"I'd have liked an easier route but that's football. You have setbacks. I've tried to learn from them, stay positive and true to myself.

"It's a massive moment for me and my family, going through tough times and the hard work and dedication. It's a proud moment and hopefully I get to be in the starting XI."

Is Aymeric Laporte's future away from Manchester City?

Laporte hit the ground running in Manchester, but Pep Guardiola has since preferred John Stones and Ruben Dias.

Real Madrid and Barcelona are reportedly willing to pounce.

 

TOP STORY – LAPORTE HEADED FOR SPAIN RETURN?

LaLiga pair Real Madrid and Barcelona are tracking Manchester City defender Aymeric Laporte , according to Caught Offside.

Laporte left Spanish outfit Athletic Bilbao for City in 2018 but the newly capped Spain international slipped down the pecking order during the 2020-21 campaign.

As City reportedly prepare a new long-term contract for John Stones , who has been preferred alongside Ruben Dias, Madrid and Barca are waiting in the wings.

 

ROUND-UP

-  Tottenham have abandoned their plans to appoint former Inter boss Antonio Conte , reports Sky Italy. Spurs and Conte were in negotiations and while ex-Juventus sporting director Fabio Paratici is poised to join the Premier League side, Conte will not reunite with his Italian compatriot. Tottenham were initially linked with former manager Mauricio Pochettino , who is currently in charge of Paris Saint-Germain. Amid ongoing speculation, Le10 Sport claims a sensational deal to bring Pochettino back to London could go ahead.

- PSG  are trying to hijack Barcelona 's move for Georginio Wijnaldum , says ESPN. Wijnaldum is available on a free transfer following the expiration of his Liverpool contract and he has been tipped to make the switch to Camp Nou.

- Mundo Deportivo reports Valencia captain Jose Luis Gaya is the on the radar for Barca , who are eyeing a new left-back.

- Gazzetto dello Sport reports  Juventus  are interested in Fiorentina defender  Nikola Milenkovic . Fiorentina could be willing to sell the Serbia international, who is out of contract in 2022. Milenkovic has previously been linked with  Tottenham Manchester United  and  West Ham Milan  could also make a move if they fail to tie up a permanent deal for Chelsea's  Fikayo Tomori .

Dusan Vlahovic  of Fiorentina, Marseille's  Arkadiusz Milik and Sassuolo's Gianluca Scamacca  are among the possible new forward signings for  Milan , says Gazzetta dello Sport. Chelsea veteran Olivier Giroud has been strongly linked with Milan.

- Marca claims  Gareth Bale  is leaning towards retirement after Euro 2020. Bale is set to return to Real Madrid following his loan spell at Tottenham.

- New Inter boss  Simone Inzaghi  wants to keep  Alexis Sanchez , per Calciomercato. As Inter look to cut costs, Sanchez has been linked with  Roma Romelu Lukaku Lautaro Martinez  and  Alessandro Bastoni  and their futures have also been questioned due to the club's financial issues.

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."

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