Pep Guardiola feels it is pointless rooting for Manchester United at Anfield this weekend given Liverpool's huge advantage over Manchester City.

Jurgen Klopp's unbeaten Reds host United - the only side to take points off them in the Premier League this season - on Sunday in a blockbuster encounter that is sure to be of interest to fans across the world.

Those of a City persuasion are in the unenviable position of knowing a victory for their cross-city rivals would be beneficial to Guardiola's side.

Yet, given the Reds would still be 11 points clear with a game in hand if they lose and City beat Crystal Palace at home on Saturday, Guardiola sees little point in even paying attention to how Liverpool are faring.

Asked whether he would be supporting United on Sunday, Guardiola replied: "Being so far away from [Liverpool], I think it's not interesting to look a little bit [at] what Liverpool does.

"It's better to focus on what we can improve for the rest of this season in all competitions, in the Premier League as well, and prepare the next one."

While they have not been able to gain on Liverpool given the relentless pace of Klopp's men, City have enjoyed an upturn in recent weeks, winning nine of their previous 10 games in all competitions.

Guardiola, who is under contract at the Etihad Stadium until 2021, has already stated he would like to stay on next season and the former Barcelona and Bayern Munich boss stressed the only way he could depart is if the club sack him.

"Unless they sack me, I'm going to stay another year here," he added.

"I don't have to announce, I have a contract. I'm going to stay, 100 per cent.

"[Unless] they don't like it and say, 'We want to change the manager.' But for sure 100 per cent I'm going to stay here next season, not because we won the last two games, or the last month we are playing a little bit better.

"Even if it was going bad or not qualifying for the Champions League, I'm not going to give up.

"The managers have good moments and bad moments, not all the managers win all the time. In the bad times we can say we are bad because we've lost some games so what can we do to get better? So, it's simple."

Jurgen Klopp believes Harry Kane's injury could alert England's authorities to the dangers of too much football if the striker is ruled out of Gareth Southgate's Euro 2020 plans.

The Tottenham striker and England captain suffered a hamstring injury in his club's New Year's Day defeat at Southampton and has undergone surgery.

Tottenham have indicated Kane should be able to resume training in April, but it could be a slow road back to full match fitness.

Liverpool manager Klopp made mention of Kane in a lengthy explanation about his concerns that too many demands are placed on players in the modern game.

Klopp is known to often point to the heavy burden on players, caused by domestic league and cup games, European matches and international commitments.

Given his important role with club and country, Kane is sure to be missed by both, and Klopp suggested the Spurs star's problem may have been caused by his own busy schedule.

"I feel massively for Harry Kane," Klopp said. "Now I've heard maybe he's not in the Euros, for the first time some English people in the FA will start thinking, 'Too many games maybe'.

"Always something has to happen so that we start really thinking about it."

Jurgen Klopp said it was "a catastrophe" for Liverpool to learn next year's Africa Cup of Nations has been moved to start in January.

The tournament in Cameroon had been due to be played in June and July, during the off-season for many European leagues, and Liverpool had been planning accordingly.

However, concerns over weather conditions at that time of year meant it was decided to move it on the calendar, which also means there will be no clash with an expanded Club World Cup in China.

While the Africa Cup of Nations will go ahead in cooler temperatures, there was no disguising Klopp's heated response to the decision.

"[It's] for us a catastrophe in that moment losing three players," Klopp said.

"We have absolutely no power. If we say we don't let him go, the player is suspended. How is that possible that the company who pays the player cannot decide if the player has to stay or not?"

He could lose the likes of Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Naby Keita for weeks on end, putting a major dent in plans for what could be a season where Liverpool, this term's runaway leaders, are defending the Premier League title.

Klopp admitted his transfer plans could also be affected by the Confederation of African Football's (CAF) decision, saying it was a move that did African players no favours.

The tournament will run from January 9 to February 6, CAF said.

"Do we really want to open this book now?" Klopp asked, when the subject was raised in a news conference on Friday.

"I couldn't respect the African Cup of Nations more than I do. I like the competition and I've watched it a lot in the past. It's an obvious problem that you play a tournament in the middle of the season.

"I get it that it makes more sense for Africa to play it maybe in our winter, their winter as well, so when the weather is better for them.

"A couple of things which are not OK – one thing is, FIFA plans a tournament [the Club World Cup] in the summer of 2021, a week later or so than the actual Africa Cup of Nations will have started [under the previous plans], I think, or maybe two weeks later, another tournament for a lot of world-class players.

"I mentioned that in the past. I'm not sure if that was part of the decision, when they thought it makes no sense to play it after that tournament so let's play it again in the winter, I don't know.

"Or was the weather the real [reason]? It means another tournament. It's too many tournaments, still.

"The other thing is, it doesn't help African players. We will not sell Sadio, Mo or Naby now because they have a tournament in January or February, but if we have to make a decision about bringing in a player, it's a massive one.

"These decisions are made without asking players, without asking managers, without asking anybody, it's just a decision. FIFA doesn't look like being involved. They're happy having their 24-team [Club] World Cup, offering a lot of money for all the clubs involved. We forget these tournaments are played by players - they don't have a break."

Jurgen Klopp warned the Anfield factor will be "massive" as he urged Liverpool to set the tempo of Sunday's clash with Manchester United.

Liverpool had to come from behind to draw 1-1 at Old Trafford in October, spared defeat by Adam Lallana's late goal after Marcus Rashford fired United ahead.

United set up to counter-attack on that occasion, despite having home advantage, and their manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer this week said his team had "found a nice way of playing" against Liverpool.

Those words could come back to haunt the Norwegian in the Premier League this weekend.

"Maybe they've found a specific way to play against Liverpool, but the difference between playing at Old Trafford and playing at Anfield is massive and we want to show that as well," Klopp said.

Rather than worry about teams 'parking the bus', Klopp's new mission is to stop the train - aware United's attackers can break at electric pace, just as they did to stunning effect in the derby against Manchester City in December.

"This game asks us for perfection. If you lose the ball at the wrong time, the train starts going and that's what is clear, but it's about us to make sure it will not happen," Klopp added.

The United draw remains the only game in which runaway leaders Liverpool have dropped points in the Premier League this season.

Klopp again pointed out his surprise at United's tactics in that previous meeting, and suggested he had no regrets over his comments about their fierce rivals' defensive approach.

"It's strange when you play against a high, high quality team, which is what United still is, and they played the way they play," Klopp said.

"We had it with Tottenham. After 70 minutes I think we had around 80 per cent possession. That's not normal. On the other hand, the counter-attacks are of the highest level in the world, that's for Tottenham and Man United for sure as well.

"I'm not saying they only counter-attack, but that's a main thing for them to do. If people want to see that as criticism, I cannot change that, but it's not, it's just a description of the situation."

Klopp said Fabinho and Joel Matip are fit to return to Liverpool's squad for the game after several months on the sidelines with their respective ankle and knee injuries, but Dejan Lovren will not resume full training until next week.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer wants to see Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Mason Greenwood take up the mantle of Manchester United's last ruthless front three of Cristiano Ronaldo, Carlos Tevez and Wayne Rooney.

One of United's finest modern forward lines led Alex Ferguson's side to two league titles, an EFL Cup, the Club World Cup and back-to-back Champions League finals, one of which they won, between 2007 and 2009.

Ronaldo and Tevez left for Real Madrid and Manchester City respectively that year and United have struggled since to form a similarly effective trident in attack.

However, there are encouraging signs around Rashford, Martial and Greenwood, who have scored more goals combined in all competitions this season than Liverpool trio Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino.

Solskjaer thinks it will take time to match the understanding of the Premier League leaders' attacking players but, ahead of Sunday's trip to Anfield, he believes in the potential of his forwards.

"The front three that they've got have been playing together for ages, not ages, but for seasons now," he said. "You can see the rotations, movements, the understanding between them, and we hope that our three get that understanding. I've probably only started them once together, the Newcastle United game, so we've got a way to go to get to the level of the three [at Liverpool], the understanding and consistency they have. But we scored four goals in that game [against Newcastle], so it's probably something I've got to look at more often.

"I believe in ours. We're going to add to them as well, definitely, but in the years to come I'm sure we'll see lots of them three. But Liverpool have scored more goals than us outside the front three so I'm not going to say ours are better than theirs or theirs are better than ours.

"We've got them on long contacts, developing into a very, very exciting front three. Ronaldo, Tevez, Rooney were different, floating, but that's what we want as Man United supporters - you want to see them express themselves, go to places like Anfield and put fear into their defenders. But we've got Dan James as well, who adds to that, so I'm very excited about it."

Solskjaer agrees that United's goalscoring threat belies the insinuation made by Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp, after the 1-1 draw at Old Trafford in October, that the Red Devils are overly defensive against their fierce rivals.

"I don't think it's an accusation. You take it as a compliment that they didn't create chances against us," Solskjaer said. "When the opposition manager is frustrated, that's a good sign for you as a manager. Of course, I think we've been closer to winning both those games, so I don't know what the problem has been."

Ashley Young is set to join Inter provided he passes a medical on Friday and Solskjaer confirmed there were no plans to sign a replacement full-back.

For now, the United boss is putting faith in young Brandon Williams to rise to the challenge of playing at Anfield.

"Does he look like I need to speak to him? I don't think so," Solskjaer replied when asked if Williams might need guidance ahead of a traditionally tempestuous match.

"He's been absolutely outstanding since he's come in. Every challenge we've put in front of him, he's tackled head on and he's only 19, had 10, 11 starts. He reminds me so much of the mentality of Gary Neville and I think he'll enjoy going to Anfield, put it that way."

There is continued speculation United are trying to finalise the signing of midfielder Bruno Fernandes, but Solskjaer would only say: "I can't tell you about any players that play for other teams. We're focusing on this game at the moment. That's my only concern."

With United's arrival expected to be greeted by Liverpool fans outside the ground, Solskjaer says he has no particular concerns about a hostile atmosphere.

"No safety fears, no," he said. "They want to try to intimidate us but as long as it's within the boundaries. I've been sat in a coach going into Europe or Anfield and whatever they shout and scream at you, you don't really notice.

"We need a very, very good performance to go there and win, but we beat Manchester City last month, we had the Paris Saint-Germain game – we need to get to the level of those performances definitely when you go away to a team that's top of the league.

"The last two performances we've had against Liverpool, we've played at Old Trafford twice, drawn twice and been closest to winning both those games, so we've got games to look back at that will give us lots of belief.

"if we perform to our best, we've got a chance to win."

With Liverpool looking likely to end a title drought stretching back to 1990, Solskjaer thinks such an unexpectedly long gap between league triumphs for their bitter rivals should serve as a warning to United.

"We're working hard to make sure it doesn't happen," he said when asked if he feared United, who last won the title in 2013, could experience a similar dry spell. 

"Let that be a lesson for us. They've been close a few times and we can't let ourselves for another 24 years without winning the league. I'm sure we won't. I believe in this club. We've started something that takes a little bit of time, but we'll get there."

Marcus Rashford is unlikely to be fit for Manchester United's clash with Liverpool on Sunday, according to manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

Rashford came off the bench and was involved in Juan Mata's winning goal just minutes later as United beat Wolves 1-0 in the FA Cup third-round replay.

The striker was forced off 10 minutes from time with an apparent back problem, however, with Solskjaer admitting the plan to use Rashford had "backfired".

Solskjaer later assured they would do everything possible to get Rashford fit for the trip to Anfield, but he is not convinced he will be ready.

"I can't tell you now," Solskjaer told reporters on Friday when asked whether Rashford would be available.

"We'll do some more checks and treatment with him today. I'm not going to hold my breath. But let's see.

"As I said with Harry [Maguire] a few weeks ago, of course we're going to give him the absolute amount of time to find out.

"We're going to do some more checks and treatment with him today. Yesterday, of course, was just a recovery day anyway and some treatment for him.

"I haven't seen him this morning, but I'm not going to hold my breath. I would probably think that he wouldn't be ready, but let's see. There's still 48 hours, more than that, so let's see."

Liverpool are 21 matches into their Premier League title bid and, remarkably, have failed to win just once.

Jurgen Klopp's side look unstoppable as they charge towards a first top-flight championship since 1989-90, building a 14-point lead – with a game in hand – heading into this weekend's fixtures.

But the one team to halt Liverpool this term, holding the Reds to a 1-1 draw at Old Trafford on October 20, were bitter rivals Manchester United.

Only a late Adam Lallana equaliser to cancel out Marcus Rashford's opener maintained the leaders' unbeaten league campaign.

United face Liverpool again on Sunday, visiting Anfield, so we take a look at what went right for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's men last time and what they must do to earn a result again on Merseyside.

 

MIDFIELD BATTLE KEY

The supposed weakness of this Liverpool team is said to be in their midfield, and while that often does not bear true, it did in the reverse fixture.

The Reds boasted 68 per cent of possession but captain Jordan Henderson endured a rare tough afternoon, completing just 23 passes as he was first shifted out wide and then replaced by Lallana.

Andreas Pereira was key for United in leading the sort of harrying often associated with Klopp's early Liverpool teams, not allowing the visitors to settle and winning possession on 11 occasions. The Brazilian (11.89km), compatriot Fred (11.92km) and Scott McTominay (11.93km) also each covered more ground than any other player.

But if the centre of the pitch is where Liverpool can be got at, it is also where United are now short. Pereira's form has been ordinary, Fred is inconsistent, and both McTominay and Paul Pogba are injured.

 

WING-BACKS A WINNER

As well as pressing the Liverpool midfield back, Solskjaer crafted a plan to combat the dual threats of right-back Trent Alexander-Arnold and left-back Andy Robertson in October.

A five-man defence allowed Aaron Wan-Bissaka (two tackles, two clearances, two interceptions) and Ashley Young (three clearances, two interceptions, two fouls won) to aggressively match up against their opposite numbers, limiting the effectiveness of two of the division's chief creators.

Liverpool mustered just seven crosses from open play in the first half, while only four of the 19 deliveries Alexander-Arnold and Robertson attempted between them by full-time found a team-mate.

Unfortunately for United, the lax marking of their central defensive three saw Lallana left free to convert when Robertson did hit the mark late in an improved second half. The Red Devils cannot afford similar such lapses this time.

 

SALAH STAYING SILENT

If the midfield is stifled and Alexander-Arnold and Robertson are kept in check, Liverpool will be left hoping for a moment of magic from a key attacking star like Mohamed Salah.

But Salah, who missed out with injury at Old Trafford, has not scored or assisted a single goal in four Premier League appearances against United.

That might sound like a run destined to be broken soon enough, but the same could be said of Raheem Sterling's unlikely drought. The Manchester City forward is now scoreless in 18 meetings with his club's city rivals in all competitions.

Salah's continued struggles in a fixture that brings plenty of pressure would represent a big boost as United look for all the help they can get at fortress Anfield.

 

MAN FOR THE BIG OCCASION

That Old Trafford stalemate provided yet more evidence that Solskjaer can get his team to turn up in the big matches.

United have won away at Tottenham, Arsenal, Chelsea (twice), Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City since Solskjaer took charge 13 months ago, while Liverpool have now been held twice at Old Trafford.

Indeed, Solskjaer is the only manager Klopp has faced more than once in the Premier League and failed to beat.

But after back-to-back victories against Spurs and City last month lifted the United boss, his side lost to Arsenal and Pep Guardiola's men in the New Year. With a modest record against lesser opposition, Solskjaer must again prove his worth in these contests.

This Sunday sees Premier League leaders Liverpool host Manchester United, rivals who sit 27 points below them in the table.

There has been a clear gulf in class between Jurgen Klopp's side, who have accrued a whopping 61 points from a possible 63 across 21 fixtures, and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's men, who have suffered defeats at Watford, Bournemouth and Newcastle United already this term.

Yet one bright spark for United has been the form of Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial, an attacking duo who have combined for more goals than Liverpool pair Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane.

Rashford faces a battle to be fit for the game having come off against Wolves in Wednesday's FA Cup replay due to a back injury, but just how do the quartet compare when fully fit, and how have they evolved in 2019-20? We crunched the numbers to find out.

 

RASHFORD AND MARTIAL: FROM PROFLIGATE TO POTENT

Salah (10) and Mane (11) have combined for 21 league goals (42 per cent of Liverpool's 50 goals), while Rashford (14) and Martial (8) have scored 22 (61 per cent of United's 36 goals).

The United duo's success in front of goal has come thanks to their ability to convert big chances. Excluding penalties, Rashford has scored eight of his 15 big chances, converting 53.8 per cent compared to 23.8 per cent last season.

Martial, with five goals from nine big chances, is even more efficient (55.6 per cent) and both United forwards have better big-chance conversion rates than Salah (50 per cent) and Mane (30 per cent).

Mane has had more big chances than the rest of the quartet, but having scored 15 of his 26 big chances in the 2018-19 league campaign he has netted only six of 20 this time around.

 

RASHFORD'S LEAP FORWARD

It is not just in front of goal where Rashford has shown an improvement and become a greater focus of United's attack.

The England international is averaging more touches per game this season (43.68 to 37.18), more touches in the opposition box per game (5.45 to 4.81) and has taken more shots (74) than any of Salah (66), Mane (49) or Martial (40).

Rashford switched between central and wide berths last term but is now firmly established on the left side of United's attack with a clear purpose.

The one statistic that perhaps outlines that most is that Rashford has attempted an astonishing 57 more dribbles than Salah this season.

 

ALEXANDER-ARNOLD ALTERS SALAH'S ROLE?

Last season only four players - Eden Hazard, Wilfried Zaha, Nathan Redmond and Raheem Sterling - completed more dribbles than Salah's 81, but in this campaign it's a different story.

The Reds forward has attempted just 49 - far fewer than Mane (67) - while he has completed fewer dribbles (23) than team-mates Mane, Georginio Wijnaldum and Roberto Firmino.

Salah led the Premier League for touches in the box in 2018-19 (322), and only Sterling is ahead of him this time, but he has had far fewer touches overall than Mane (764 to 1,000) having led the Senegalese (1,820 to 1,807) in the previous campaign.

That might have something to do with right-back Trent Alexander-Arnold's ascent. Alexander-Arnold leads the league in touches (2,137) and is second in assists, showing that he, and not Salah, is now the focus of attacks down the Liverpool right.

A 27-POINT GAP, BUT SIMILAR ATTACKING STATISTICS

One glance at the table suggests there are few similarities between Klopp's runaway leaders and Solskjaer's Jekyll and Hyde outfit.

However, a more in-depth dive into the numbers shows there has actually been little to separate the two in many attacking senses.

Liverpool have created 258 chances to United's 241, and have only conjured up five more from open play and 10 from set-pieces.

The common theory is that United are far more effective on the counter attack, yet both teams have scored four times from fast breaks, with Solskjaer's men having 20 fast breaks to Liverpool's 18.

A big difference between the two is the quality of opportunities created, Liverpool accumulating 56 big chances to United's 34, which points to a clear lack of creativity in Solskjaer's ranks. Couple that with their defensive fragility (United's four clean sheets to Liverpool's eight) and it becomes more obvious just why the two are miles apart in the table.

Liverpool are racing clear at the top of the table and it will surely take a miracle for the Reds not to win their first Premier League title.

Jurgen Klopp's side face old rivals Manchester United on Sunday at Anfield, with the Red Devils the only team to have taken points off Liverpool so far this season.

Unbeaten in 38 Premier League matches, Liverpool are overwhelming favourites, though Ole Gunnar Solskjaer oversaw a 4-0 win over struggling Norwich City on Saturday.

Can United stall Liverpool's procession, or will Klopp's men continue their stroll towards Premier League glory?

Manchester United will do "everything" to ensure Marcus Rashford is fit to face Premier League leaders Liverpool on Sunday, manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer said.

Rashford came on in United's 1-0 FA Cup third-round replay win over Wolves at Old Trafford, but he lasted only 16 minutes before being replaced having sustained a blow to the back following a challenge from Matt Doherty on Wednesday.

Though Rashford was on the field when Juan Mata scored the winner, Solskjaer conceded the decision to bring him on "backfired" as he sustained an injury four days before the trip to Anfield.

Rashford has scored 14 goals for United in the Premier League this term and Solskjaer said the club would do all they could to get the 22-year-old fit for the weekend.

"He's a quick healer and he'll play through some pain, definitely, if he's capable, if it's not a bad, bad injury," Solskjaer told reporters at a news conference.

"But we've seen that he's struggled lately - but more when he's been tired. 

"He wasn't on long enough to be tired so I think it might have been something that just happened there and then.

"He's been absolutely top this season so we'll do everything we can to get him fit for Sunday.

"If he's not then we'll play without him."

Rashford himself tweeted after the match to reveal he attempted to carry on, while congratulating his team-mates on booking a fourth-round tie with either Watford or Tranmere Rovers.

"Never want to feel like I’ve let my team-mates, the club and most importantly the fans down so did my very best to carry on tonight and was gutted to come off," he said.

"Top work from the lads to get into the next round"

United were already without key midfield duo Scott McTominay and Paul Pogba, as well as defenders Eric Bailly and Luke Shaw on Wednesday, yet Solskjaer was not about to bemoan an increasing casualty list.

"It's football, I'll never ever complain about all the injuries we've got," he added.

"That's just part and parcel of it and at the moment that's Marcus. He's been available and fit all season so you can't complain."

Liverpool are storming towards a maiden Premier League title having taken 61 points from a possible 63.

The only points they dropped came at Old Trafford earlier in the campaign when Rashford scored in a 1-1 draw in October.

Solskjaer is therefore confident his team will have a gameplan to make life difficult for Jurgen Klopp's Reds.

"Of course it's hard but I've had Liverpool here twice and we've drawn both," said the Norwegian.

"Of course we want to win those but I think we've found a nice way of playing against them and we've deserved the points in both of them."

Barcelona top the Deloitte Money League for the first time after also becoming the only club to break the €800million mark for revenue. 

The Camp Nou club generated €840.8m during the 2018-19 season, seeing them topple bitter rivals Real Madrid at the top of Deloitte's table.

Barca finished ahead of Madrid by some distance, with Los Blancos bringing in €757.3m across the course of the campaign, though that was enough to keep them second and in front of Manchester United.

The Red Devils may have underwhelmed on the pitch in recent seasons, but they remain a major financial power, with revenues reaching €711.5m.

United are one of eight Premier League clubs in the top 20, with Manchester City (fifth), Liverpool (seventh), Tottenham (eighth), Chelsea (ninth), Arsenal (11th), West Ham (18th) and Everton (19th) joining them.

However, United could potentially slip next year due to a lack of Champions League action this term, with Bayern Munich (€660.1m) and Paris Saint-Germain (€635.9m) the biggest threats to knocking them out of the top three.

Deloitte also understand United are at risk of losing their status as the Premier League's highest revenue-generating club for the first time next year, with City and Liverpool very much on the rise.

Napoli and Lyon are the only new entrants to the top 20.

Jose Mourinho insisted he was "not jealous" of the squads assembled by Liverpool and Manchester City, saying Tottenham was a different job.

City are coming off back-to-back Premier League titles, while Liverpool are 14 points clear with a game in hand this season.

Mourinho was appointed Spurs head coach in November, and his side are battling in eighth in the table.

But the Portuguese tactician said they could not be compared to City and Liverpool, although he has no complaints.

"Come on, it is what it is. We cannot have a squad like some other teams. It's not us," Mourinho said.

"I was watching Man City [against Aston Villa] and I looked to the bench – [Raheem] Sterling, Bernardo Silva, [Ilkay] Gundogan, [Nicolas] Otamendi. You know?

"Liverpool, you see the team, you see the bench. And they have injured [Joel] Matip, [Dejan] Lovren, [Naby] Keita, Fabinho.

"I'm not jealous, I have an amazing job, but they are different jobs. This is a different club."

Mourinho suggested the job at Spurs was his most difficult since he was at Porto, where he took over in early 2002.

The former Real Madrid, Inter and Chelsea boss – who would lead Porto to Champions League glory in 2004 – said he had to reset at the Portuguese giants.

"It is the second time I get a team mid-season, just the second time," Mourinho said.

"The first time was also not easy because it was the end of a team, the end of an era. It was an era without titles.

"Porto was not winning but it was the end of... I don't want to say of a generation but it was the end of a team in the end of a season.

"Twelve players out, twelve players in, start everything from the beginning. Forget the good things of the past, forget the bad things of the past and let's build from new.

"That is my experience in Porto coming in the middle of the season."

Tottenham face Middlesbrough in an FA Cup third-round replay on Tuesday.

Given he delivered back-to-back LaLiga titles and left Barcelona still at the summit, Ernesto Valverde's departure appears perplexing on the surface.

There has been no great decline to speak of, no obvious player revolt and no boardroom bickering.

Why then have the Blaugrana opted to part ways with their head coach and replace him with Quique Setien, a man who could only lead Real Betis to a 10th-place finish last term?

We have taken a look at the five games which might have ultimately resulted in Valverde's exit.

Roma 3-0 Barcelona. Champions League quarter-final second leg. April 10, 2018.

After being beaten in both legs of the Supercopa de Espana by Real Madrid to begin his reign, things picked up for Valverde, who enjoyed a 36-match unbeaten run at the beginning of the 2017-18 LaLiga campaign.

However, two and a half weeks before that title triumph was sealed, Barcelona were stunned in Europe.

Valverde's side were in control of the tie having beaten the Serie A side 4-1 at home, but Roma became only the third side in Champions League history to overturn a first-leg deficit of three goals or more.

Greek defender Kostas Manolas scored the crucial third goal eight minutes from time as Roma went through on away goals and Valverde suffered his first, but not last, European humiliation.

Liverpool 4-0 Barcelona. Champions League semi-final second leg. May 7, 2019.

Fast forward a year and a case of deja vu, with Barca sitting pretty on a 3-0 first-leg lead in their last-four tie against Liverpool.

The Reds were without Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino for the return fixture at Anfield, where Divock Origi's early goal only gave them a sliver of hope.

Yet Barca looked shell-shocked as Georginio Wijnaldum's double was followed up by another Origi strike, Liverpool incredibly progressing to a final they would win.

Described in the Spanish press as a "debacle", "tragedy" and "historic failure", the writing seemed to be on the wall for Valverde from that point.

Barcelona 1-2 Valencia. Copa del Rey final. May 25, 2019. 

Not even a second LaLiga title could silence Valverde's doubters, who had more ammo when his team lost to Valencia in the Copa del Rey final.

Valverde had hoped a victory would ease the pain of the Liverpool loss but Barca were stunned again, Kevin Gameiro and Rodrigo putting Valencia 2-0 ahead before Lionel Messi pulled one back.

Rather than wield the axe, though, club president Josep Maria Bartomeu absolved Valverde of blame for the result.

 

Espanyol 2-2 Barcelona. LaLiga. January 4, 2020.

Away defeats to Athletic Bilbao, Granada and Levante would have looked costlier had the champions' nearest rivals Real Madrid not stumbled along themselves in the first half of this season.

Both teams' struggles were evident in a 0-0 Clasico draw at Camp Nou in December, but it was Barcelona's first result back after the mid-season break that would have set more alarm bells ringing.

Derby rivals Espanyol were bottom of the table and had not beaten Barca in LaLiga since 2009 but Frenkie de Jong was sent off as the strugglers claimed a 2-2 draw.

Barcelona 2-3 Atletico Madrid. Supercopa de Espana semi-final. January 9, 2020.

Five days later and it got even worse for Valverde and Barcelona.

Leading 2-1 in Saudi Arabia with nine minutes to go, the Blaugrana collapsed again late on, with Alvaro Morata and Angel Correa sending Atletico through to a final against their cross-city rivals Madrid.

It meant Barcelona had won just one of their previous five games, a sour note to end on for Valverde.

Liverpool have sent centre-back Nathaniel Phillips back to Stuttgart on loan for the remainder of the 2019-20 season.

The 22-year-old was only recalled to Anfield on December 27 amid a defensive injury crisis for manager Jurgen Klopp.

Phillips made his Liverpool debut in the FA Cup win over Everton earlier this month, but it was confirmed on Monday he will now return to Stuttgart with Joel Matip (knee) and Dejan Lovren (hamstring) closing in on returns to fitness.

Stuttgart sit third in the Bundesliga II and Phillips made nine league appearances for them during his initial spell.

Liverpool continued their relentless march towards the Premier League title with a 1-0 victory over Tottenham while Sergio Aguero sent records tumbling in Manchester City's resounding win at Aston Villa.

The Reds moved 16 points clear at the top thanks to Leicester City's defeat to Southampton – as Danny Ings kept up his superb form – though the gap was reduced slightly when City thrashed Villa on Sunday.

Meanwhile, Manchester United ended a three-match winless streak with a resounding 4-0 triumph over lowly Norwich City.

We review the key top-flight matches with the help of Opta data.

 

CHAMPIONS-ELECT SET NEW BENCHMARKS AS TITLE TILT CONTINUES AT PACE

Barring a collapse of epic proportions, it seems certain that the Premier League title will be Liverpool's for the first time come the end of the season – or earlier, at this rate.

Roberto Firmino's fifth goal in his past six appearances handed Jurgen Klopp's side the points at Tottenham, who lost successive league matches for the first time this season, and have also conceded 20 goals in 13 matches under Jose Mourinho.

Liverpool sit on 61 points at the top of the pile, the most any side has ever registered after 21 matches in a single season across Europe's big five leagues.

Klopp's team have amassed 104 points across their past 38 Premier League games, winning 33 times and drawing on five occasions; this is a record total by any team across a 38-match run in the competition's history.

It is 38 league games since Liverpool last suffered a defeat. In the same amount of time, Spurs have lost 16 matches – including three defeats to the Reds.

AGUERO SMASHES RECORDS IN SIX-GOAL ROMP

It was a waltz in Villa Park for City on Sunday, as Aguero's hat-trick and a masterclass from Kevin De Bruyne propelled Pep Guardiola's side to a 6-1 win and up into second place.

With his second goal – which came early in the second half to put City 5-0 up – Aguero became the highest-scoring non-British player in Premier League history, moving ahead of Thierry Henry.

Aguero moved onto 177 top-flight goals when he thumped in his third, making the former Atletico Madrid forward the outright record holder for hat-tricks in the Premier League with 12 to his name – one ahead of Alan Shearer's tally of 11.

After his first-half double and assist for Aguero's hat-trick goal, Riyad Mahrez is the only Premier League player to both score and assist 20 goals or more since the start of last season in all competitions. 

De Bruyne, meanwhile, is now on 15 assists for this campaign after teeing up two of City's goals.

INGS KEEPS GETTING BETTER

Two of the Premier League's leading scorers went head-to-head at the King Power Stadium, but while Jamie Vardy failed to inspire Leicester City to victory, Southampton's Ings proved the match-winner as the Saints gained revenge for their 9-0 defeat in the reverse fixture.

Ings' effort nine minutes from time was his 14th of the season and his ninth goal in his past 10 top-flight appearances.

It means 40 per cent of Ings' 35 Premier League goals have come in this campaign, while he is also the highest-scoring Southampton player since Jay Rodriguez in 2013-14.

Dennis Praet put Leicester ahead and is the 14th different player to have scored for the Foxes in the Premier League this term, while Brendan Rodgers suffered successive home defeats for the first time since he took over.

UNITED'S FORWARDS RUN RIOT IN OLD TRAFFORD ROUT

Missing leading scorer Teemu Pukki, Norwich City never looked likely to trouble United, who cruised to a convincing win to lift themselves into fifth place.

It is the first time United have scored four goals in consecutive home games in the league since September 2017, while the Canaries have not won in nine Premier League matches.

Marcus Rashford scored twice and is now on 19 goals in all competitions this season – only Raheem Sterling, with 20, has more among Premier League players.

Juan Mata set up two goals, the first time he has provided two assists in a league match since October 2012 – also against Norwich – while Mason Greenwood has scored four top-flight goals this term, more than any other teenager in the competition.

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