Pep Guardiola admits Manchester City's repeated spot-kick failures will force him into a rethink over how penalty takers are picked.

Gabriel Jesus saw his first-half effort repelled by Dean Henderson in City's hard-earned 1-0 Premier League win at Sheffield United on Tuesday.

It was the Brazilian's third miss from five top-flight efforts from 12 yards, but he is not the only guilty party in the City ranks, with Raheem Sterling and even talisman Sergio Aguero - who scored the winner at Bramall Lane - also fluffing their lines.

Asked if it was a cause for concern, Guardiola replied: "Definitely.

"I have to reflect on it. I always have the confidence in the players to take it, but I have to reflect on maybe how they take the decision on who will take it.

"Not [just] for Gabriel today, because Sergio missed two and Raheem missed one and a half against Wolves [a twice-taken, twice-saved penalty, with Sterling netting the rebound from the second].

"We are not safe. In that level it's so important, it makes the difference most of the time.

"I have to take a decision with the guys over who is going to take the penalty."

Asked if he had someone in mind, Guardiola said he did but would not reveal a name, except to jokingly add: "Ederson is the best. Believe me, Eddie is the best taker we have on the penalties.

"He has no blood in his brains, he's so calm, so he could do it."

Pep Guardiola was delighted to see Manchester City overcome a resilient Sheffield United after Sergio Aguero came off the bench to score the only goal of the game.

It had looked set to be an evening of frustration for the Premier League champions at Bramall Lane on Tuesday, with Blades goalkeeper Dean Henderson in inspired form.

Gabriel Jesus saw a first-half penalty saved and Raheem Sterling also missed an excellent chance before Aguero sealed the points, converting Kevin De Bruyne's pinpoint cross in the 73rd minute. 

"It's a difficult place to come, they are so physical," Guardiola told BT Sport. "It was a solid performance, we only conceded two chances. In the first half the keeper made two incredible saves.

"I am so happy with the team. I know what it's like to play here, it is a tough, tough place.

"We controlled it well and in the end we created chances to win."

Guardiola was able to hand Aymeric Laporte his first start since August following a knee injury, the Frenchman managing 78 minutes in a system designed partly for his benefit.

"We knew that Aymeric couldn't play for 90 minutes, that's why we played five at the back to to protect him a little bit," said Guardiola. "He's a crucial player for us, we've missed him, it's good for us to have him back."

The winning goal came from the most obvious source, with Aguero quickly to the fore after replacing Jesus, who fluffed his lines after Riyad Mahrez had earned a spot-kick.

Aguero surpassed 250 goals for City in the 2-2 draw with Crystal Palace last Saturday and now has eight in his past five outings in all competitions, leading to warm praise from his manager.

"Sergio is on fire right now," said Guardiola. "Strikers need momentum. It's good for us to have strikers in this form."

Sergio Aguero stepped off the bench to secure a 1-0 win for Manchester City after Dean Henderson had threatened to frustrate the Premier League champions at Bramall Lane. 

Goalkeeper Henderson's stellar showing was highlighted by a superb stop from Gabriel Jesus' first-half penalty, with Raheem Sterling also finding the former Manchester United man in inspired form.

It needed the introduction of Aguero, who surpassed 250 goals for City in the 2-2 draw with Crystal Palace last time out, to get the job done for Pep Guardiola's side, with Kevin De Bruyne once again supplying the ammunition.

Further comfort for the visitors came in seeing the return of Aymeric Laporte to the starting line-up for the first time since August following a knee injury, his presence contributing to a clean sheet that represents somewhat of a rarity for City these days.

The result puts City 13 points behind champions-elect Liverpool, who have two games in hand.

United carved their visitors open early on but Billy Sharp failed to pick out a team-mate after being set free by Oli McBurnie's pass.

There was a moment of concern for Laporte when he went down under a strong challenge from Muhamed Besic, who was booked, although the Frenchman was soon back to his feet. 

He might have been jumping for joy had Henderson not produced a stunning stop to deny a disbelieving Sterling, who really ought to have converted from Riyad Mahrez's pass.

The Blades goalkeeper was alert again to thwart Nicolas Otmanedi, who executed an eye-catching bicycle kick as City stepped up the pressure. 

And after Mahrez had been felled by Chris Basham in the box, Henderson continued his one-man resistance as he leapt to his right to push away Jesus' spot-kick, albeit he had clearly come off his line.

The hosts continued to hold firm in the second half, surviving a scare when Rodri's flicked header from De Bruyne's corner dropped wide of the far post.

It was not all one-way traffic and Lys Mousset's clever back-heel attempt after Ederson had tipped Basham's cross into his path tested the Brazilian's reflexes.

Guardiola hauled off Jesus and threw on Aguero in the 67th minute to show his fellow striker how it is done, with the City legend responding by tapping in De Bruyne's pinpoint delivery six minutes later to seal the points. 

 

What does it mean? Hard work but job done for City

The Premier League title has long since been prized from City's grasp, but Guardiola's high expectations remain and a strong finish to the season will help to alleviate some of the pain of missing out this time around. It was hard work, but Chris Wilder's warriors have proven a tough task for many opponents.

Henderson the hero

Such was the brilliance of Henderson's performance that there was almost an air of inevitability about him saving Jesus' penalty. Then again, the striker has now missed three of his five attempts in the top flight. 

Jesus fluffs his lines

That supposed air of inevitability would surely not have been present had Aguero been the man standing over the penalty. And that may be Jesus' biggest problem – it's not that he isn't good, because he clearly is; it's that he is not Sergio Aguero. When he fails to score, misses a penalty and then comes off and watches on as Aguero promptly finds the net, that fact only becomes more apparent.

What's next?

Knockout competitions take centre stage for City, who continue the defence of their FA Cup and League Cup titles against Fulham and Manchester United respectively, not returning to Premier League action until next month's trip to Tottenham. For the Blades, it is back-to-back trips to south London to face Millwall in the FA Cup and then Palace in the top flight. 

Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola believes a 400 or 500-day year would be required for Champions League expansion because Premier League clubs already play too many games.

The European Club Association (ECA) and UEFA are said to be in talks about adding another four matchdays to the Champions League schedule, which would result in finalists playing 17 games.

However, with City's trip to Sheffield United on Tuesday their eighth game in the past three and a half weeks, Guardiola is an advocate of taking a scythe to the gruelling schedule in England.

"I think the solution is you have to make a year of 400 days, that is a solution, 400 or 500, more or less. After that we can book another competition. Maybe UEFA or FIFA can talk about it. We have few days a year, that's the problem," said Guardiola.

Champions League expansion would likely have negative ramifications for the EFL Cup.

After stating the EFL Cup "wouldn't be interesting" if Premier League sides withdrew in order to lighten their loads, the former Bayern Munich and Barcelona offered a more ruthless alternative.

"Eliminate competitions. Take them out completely - so less games," he said.

"Less games, less competitions, less teams, more quality, less quantity. The people are going enjoy it. The people are going to go to the theatre, to the cinema, restaurants, to watch the fireworks. That is what they would do."

At the crux of Guardiola's argument is a desire to reduce the physical workload on players.

He said: "There are less games [in Germany in Spain], much less than here. In the Bundesliga there are 18 teams not 20, one cup not two. They have a break, in Spain they have a break.Tthe cup is run with one game, not two. So it's a big difference.

"It's just to protect the players … For them they'd enjoy it more, the people too. People say they can't live without football, they can live without football for a while. It's too much, honestly."

The City boss suggested serious injuries sustained by Harry Kane and Marcus Rashford since the turn of the year were a result of the excessive demands.

Kane's hamstring problem and Rashford's back issue were a blow to Gareth Southgate ahead of Euro 2020, but Guardiola feels those in charge of the game in England cannot be surprised.

"It's a big blow for Gareth, for the national team. Kane and Rashford are incredibly important players for them. Hopefully there isn't another one who does that and they can recover," he said.

"It's an incredible amount of games. Now we're talking about it because they are [injured], but looking back at the injuries Newcastle have had, we have had, all the teams. That is normal. With that number of games, sooner or later the players break down.

"I'm not really surprised. I’m so sorry for them, but with this amount of games it happens. The big administration people cannot complain because it's normal this happens.

"Of course it is [too much to expect]. They arrive in the Euros, playing with the national teams trying their best, then [back here] after no more than 20 days because the business, the show, must go on. It's unsustainable.

"Sooner or later the players fall down. It's too much. I'm so sorry for Kane and Rashford because they are incredible and good for the league, but we demand a lot from the players, it's too much.

"They should reflect [on] it but all the managers complained about it and they don't care. Now Boxing Day is over, another season, and prepare for the next one. A distance of two or three days again and again.

"The players in the end suffer. They want to do well and the clubs have a lot of pressure to win titles or qualify for the Champions League, the players want to do well. We push them and we are being pushed.

"At some moment the body says stop, it's enough."

Pep Guardiola is not surprised by Sheffield United's success in the Premier League this season as the Manchester City manager revealed he learns from watching Chris Wilder's side.

The Blades are seventh in the Premier League - just six points off a Champions League place - in their first campaign back in the top flight.

An expansive brand of football has brought Wilder many admirers, and Guardiola concedes he is among them.

City visit Sheffield United on Tuesday, having been made to work for a 2-0 home win last month.

"I'm incredibly impressed," Guardiola told a pre-match news conference. "When people say you can improve watching other games, other teams, other managers, this is the one.

"I never saw some movements they are doing. That's the reason why they are in the position they are.

"We saw it here [at the Etihad Stadium], we suffered here a few weeks ago. I'm really impressed. I admire them, honestly. I admire how they play and what they are doing.

"It's the same manager and a high percentage of the same players from League One, the Championship, now the Premier League, being near the top of the league up there.

"I like it. As a manager, you see some teams so you can improve - this is the one."

Pep Guardiola concedes Liverpool are "extraordinary", but he is more focused on improving Manchester City than worrying about how they stack up against the runaway Premier League leaders.

City have won the title in the past two seasons under Guardiola yet now trail Liverpool, who have a game in hand, by 16 points.

The Reds have dropped just two points in the top flight, but City manager Guardiola would prefer to focus on how the defending champions can raise their game.

"In terms of what we are as a team, we are open, we accept," he told a news conference before facing Sheffield United on Tuesday.

"We cannot deny it - the Liverpool team is extraordinary in terms of football, in terms of results.

"But every day I live almost 24 hours thinking about my team and what we are, what we are doing, what we can do better. I'm not too much distracted by other teams in other leagues or, in this case, Liverpool."

City have scored more league goals than any other team in the division this season, yet they have also conceded more than Sheffield United and last Saturday's opponents Crystal Palace, who claimed a 2-2 draw at the Etihad Stadium.

"We concede few, but the opponents score goals from a few chances," Guardiola said. "That is difficult to solve. We have to improve in this area.

"We have scored I don't know how many more goals than Liverpool [12], so our way is good. I don't have the statistics here, but I don't think we concede more chances in one game. From the few, we concede goals that we shouldn't and drop points.

"You start from Tottenham in the first game, they shoot twice in the half on target and score two goals. Norwich shoot three times and score three goals.

"When this happens, it's difficult to fight against this Liverpool. We have to improve in this area."

Guardiola revealed John Stones and Benjamin Mendy had knocks following the weekend draw, although he was not yet sure if the issues would keep them out against the Blades.

The Spaniard felt criticism of Stones after the Palace game, in which he appeared to struggle against Wilfried Zaha, was harsh.

"It was unfair, yeah," he said. "We are there, I am there. Ups and downs in the career, the football manager always has to be strong. We know his quality."

Dreams of Premier League glory began to feel like an inevitability at Anfield as Liverpool beat Manchester United on a weekend that saw Leicester City, Chelsea and Manchester City drop points.

Jurgen Klopp's side dispatched their old rivals with goals from Virgil van Dijk and Mohamed Salah, leaving Reds supporters full of confidence after Burnley came from behind to beat third-placed Leicester 2-1 at Turf Moor.

There was a surprise result at St. James' Park on Saturday, Frank Lampard's Chelsea dominating for long periods against Newcastle United but succumbing to a late Isaac Hayden goal in a 1-0 defeat.

There were late goals at the Etihad Stadium, where Sergio Aguero thought he had won it with a brace, only for Fernandinho to put through his own net in a 2-2 draw with Crystal Palace.

The weekend's Opta data offers detailed insights into the stories behind those results, as well as Wolves' dramatic 3-2 comeback victory over Southampton at St. Mary's.

 

ANFIELD FULL OF HOPE AFTER BACK-TO-BACK HOME WINS OVER UNITED

They are no longer saying it quietly: Liverpool fans firmly believe the title is theirs after watching their side beat United on Sunday.

The victory marked the first time Liverpool have claimed consecutive home Premier League wins over the Red Devils since winning three in a row between September 2008 and March 2011 and there was an air of invulnerability around Anfield at the final whistle.

Liverpool have taken 91 points from a possible 93 in their last 31 Premier League matches, winning 30 and drawing just one, while United have now lost nine of their last 16 top-flight away games (W3 D4 L9).

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's men have failed to score in eight of those games and they gave Liverpool goalkeeper Alisson little to do despite creating a number of goalscoring opportunities.

Alisson kept himself busy by becoming the first Reds keeper to assist a Premier League goal since March 2010, when Pepe Reina laid on a goal against Sunderland.

 

 


LATE HAYDEN WINNER LEAVES LAMPARD'S BLUES REELING

Chelsea have lost as many Premier League games this season as they did in the entirety of 2018-19 after Hayden scored in the 94th minute to snatch victory for Newcastle over Lampard's inconsistent Blues.

Four of Chelsea's eight league defeats this season have come in their last eight matches and supporters making the trip to Tyneside had reason to be fearful of their side coming unstuck.

Chelsea have now lost five of their last seven top-flight trips to St. James' Park but defeats to teams managed by Steve Bruce have been a rare occurrence - this was only the second time he has beaten the Blues in 23 games against them as a manager (D5 L16).

Prior to Hayden's strike, Newcastle had not scored a last-minute winner since Ayoze Perez struck against Tottenham in December 2015.

It was Hayden's third Premier League goal and came in his 70th appearance in the competition, his last coming in February 2019 against Wolves.

 

POROUS CITY PAY FOR ERRORS AT THE BACK

City came from behind to lead with three minutes left in their clash with Palace but conceded at home in the Premier League for the 12th time this season as the Eagles secured a point at the death.

Pep Guardiola's men have now conceded as many goals at home in the league as they did in the whole of last season and this was their third draw of the 2019-20 season - in their title-winning campaign last term they only drew twice.

Aguero's double inside five minutes marked the Argentina international's 250th and 251st goals in all competitions for the club in his 360th appearance, but Fernandinho became the first City player to score a Premier League own-goal since Nicolas Otamendi against Huddersfield Town in November 2017.

The scoring was opened by new signing Cenk Tosun, who netted in the 39th minute to become the fourth Turkish player to reach 10 Premier League goals after Muzzy Izzet, Tuncay Sanli and Tugay.

Palace are ninth in the table after four consecutive draws - the last time they drew as many Premier League games in a row was in 1992-93 when they started the season with the same sequence.

 

WOLVES EMERGING AS COMEBACK SPECIALISTS

When Raul Jimenez scored from the penalty spot at St. Mary's he pulled Wolves level after they had been two goals down, but there was even better to follow for Nuno Espirito Santo's men.

Jimenez scored again in the 76th minute, taking his tally to 19 goals in all competitions this season and clinching three points for Wolves that means they have now picked up 18 from losing positions in the Premier League this season - seven more than any other side.

Falling behind after 15 minutes to a Jan Bednarek goal was nothing new for the visitors, who have conceded first in 16 league games this season including each of their last seven in a row.

But Jimenez has been directly involved in 28 goals this season and after Shane Long netted his 54th Premier League goal to make it 2-0 to the Saints, Pedro Neto scored for the second time in his last three league appearances to tee up the Mexico international for a memorable brace.

Jimenez now has 19 goals and nine assists to his name in all competitions this season, giving him more direct goal involvements than any other top-flight player in 2019-20.

Manchester City without Pep Guardiola?

Speculation over Guardiola's future is not going away, with Premier League champions City set to be dethroned by Liverpool this season.

And a move to Paris Saint-Germain could be on the cards…

 

TOP STORY – PSG PREPARE MAMMOTH GUARDIOLA OFFER

French champions Paris Saint-Germain are trying to lure Pep Guardiola from Manchester City, according to the Express.

Amid uncertainty over Guardiola's future, the Ligue 1 holders are ready to make a huge offer to tempt the City manager to Paris.

Guardiola, whose side appear set to finish some distance behind Liverpool in the Premier League, has also been linked with a return to Barcelona, despite their appointment of Quique Setien this week.

 

 

ROUND-UP

- According to The Mirror, Premier League leaders Liverpool and rivals Chelsea will battle it out for RB Leipzig striker Timo Werner.

- Juventus midfielder and former Liverpool star Emre Can is wanted by Everton, reports The Mirror. Can is out of favour in Turin and has been previously linked to Manchester United.

- Il Corriere dello Sport claims Sevilla want to sign Inter midfielder Matias Vecino, who appears destined to leave Milan ahead of Christian Eriksen's reported arrival from Tottenham.

- Speculation over Bruno Fernandes' future is set to drag on. Although he has been tipped to join United, Sporting CP and the Red Devils are reportedly miles apart in their valuations of the captain. While United want to bring in Fernandes this month, the Standard says they are threatening to abandon their pursuit over fears it could damage Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's transfer plans at the end of the season. Over-paying for Fernandes has prompted concerns it could impact United's interest in Leicester City star James Maddison and Borussia Dortmund teenager Jadon Sancho.

Real Madrid are unwilling to loan out James Rodriguez, with Marca reporting the LaLiga giants are only interested in selling the Colombia international.

Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola lamented the poor defending that allowed Crystal Palace to escape with 2-2 draw after a thrilling finish at the Etihad Stadium on Saturday.

The hosts were behind for the bulk of the contest after Cenk Tosun's 39th minute opener but Sergio Aguero punctuated the frustration with his 250th goal in City colours eight minutes from time.

Aguero duly headed home Benjamin Mendy's cross to put Guardiola's men ahead but there was a sting in the tail and Wilfried Zaha tore past the timid efforts of John Stones and forced Fernandinho to put through his own goal.

"We have to avoid the mistake we have made on the second goal," Guardiola told a post-match news conference.

"Just do not allow Zaha to run, it’s that simple. And we allowed it.

"No [it was not a loss of concentration], it was a decision. Concentration was always there. We are going to solve it and improve it.

"In those positions we need to have the back four there and not let them run on this counter-attack."

Although he did not name the England international specifically, this felt like a damning indictment of Stones' efforts in what has been a difficult campaign for a centre-back frequently short of form and fitness.

At the end of his forlorn pursuit of Zaha, Stones appeared to jar a knee but Guardiola could not offer a fitness update.

"I didn't see the doctors. Now we are going to see," he said.

Champions City are 13 points behind leaders Liverpool having played two games more and Guardiola gave a weary response to a question over whether the title race was still alive – suggesting he might be better served preparing for his team's Tuesday assignment at Sheffield United as opposed to watching Manchester United's trip to Anfield on Sunday.

"I answered the question millions of times in the past few weeks," he added.

"Maybe I will watch it, maybe I will see Sheffield United. I don't know."

City thought they had a penalty at 1-0 down, only for referee Graham Scott to overturn his decision after a VAR review of the incident when Jairo Riedewald deflected Raheem Sterling's cross on to his own arm.

Guardiola said of the incident. "I don’t know the rule of the hands, honestly. It looks like hands, but…"

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."

Pep Guardiola joked Roy Hodgson must get "bored at home" ahead of his next meeting with the veteran Crystal Palace manager.

Manchester City boss Guardiola turns 49 on Saturday, when the Premier League champions welcome Palace to the Etihad Stadium for a fixture the Eagles won 3-2 last season.

The former Barcelona and Bayern Munich head coach was once again quick to voice his admiration for Hodgson, 72, who has made a successful return to top-flight management after his England tenure ended in 2016.

"Of course I admire him. It's incredible how he still has the patience to be a manager at his age," Guardiola told a pre-match news conference.

"It's incredible and he is doing really well. We cannot forget the situation when he took over when they had zero points and everyone considered them relegated.

"Instead of that, he did an incredible job and it is a pleasure and an honour for me every time I get to see him."

Guardiola, a famously intense presence at the training ground and in the dugout, does not envisage emulating Hodgson's longevity.

"I think when you are still training at 74 it is because you are bored at home," he chuckled.

"When you retire you have curiosity to do other things. The problem is when you have no interests to do anything else and you are at home doing nothing.

"If afterwards you want to enjoy other things, why should it be a problem? I am interested in other things and I think I am going to do them when I am not a manager, but I enjoy being a manager."

Guardiola reported Aymeric Laporte had enjoyed another encouraging week working with his team-mates as he closes in on a return from meniscus surgery.

Form and fitness problems mean John Stones has not been able to effectively step up in his fellow centre-back's absence, but the City manager joined his former assistant Mikel Arteta in shutting down talk that the England international could join Arsenal on loan.

"I am not going to talk in this period about the rumours, our players or other players," he added.

"We are linked so far with five million players we are going to buy.

"Don't ask about that because you know the answer."

Sergio Aguero's phenomenal goalscoring exploits for Manchester City make him one of the best in world football, but Pep Guardiola maintains Lionel Messi still stands apart.

Aguero fired a hat-trick in City's 6-1 demolition of Aston Villa on Sunday, replacing Thierry Henry as the most prolific overseas player in Premier League history.

A 12th treble in the competition represents a new all-time best mark, edging City's record goalscorer ahead of Alan Shearer.

Asked afterwards whether Aguero was the best he has worked with, City manager Guardiola felt compelled to highlight his alliance with six-time Ballon d'Or winner Messi at Barcelona.

"The best is Messi," he smiled, before a follow-up enquiry pondered whether Aguero was the finest out-and-out striker he had handled in his decorated career.

Guardiola added: "Messi is [the best] number nine, number 10, number 11, number seven, number six, number five, number four…

"But Sergio, [among] the rest, he is certainly one of them. I said many times, he will die scoring goals. It is his talent."

It has proved a tempestuous few days at Barcelona, with club great Xavi reportedly turning down the chance to replace the under-fire Ernesto Valverde.

Guardiola expressed sympathy with the former Athletic Bilbao boss, who has won LaLiga in each of his two full seasons in charge, with the Blaugrana joint-top this time around.

"Barcelona is a special place, because wining the league is not enough," he said.

"I am so sorry for Ernesto. I think he doesn't deserve that.

"Hopefully we can solve it soon, as an associate of this club."

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.

Gabriel Jesus dispatched an unfussy left-footed finish to put Manchester City 4-0 up before half-time at Villa Park but knew this was no time to bask in his own achievement.

Beaming in a giggling grin, the Brazil forward made straight for Kevin De Bruyne, City's playmaker extraordinaire who had made it virtually impossible for him not to score the 14th goal of a quietly impressive season.

De Bruyne collected possession just inside the Villa half and strode purposefully away from Danny Drinkwater, who was enduring the sort of debut the director of a slasher horror movie might have found a little on the nose.

Soon enough he was in the position. The Kevin De Bruyne position.

You know the one – just on the edge of the final third, a little wide of the right-hand side of the penalty area. The perfect angle for De Bruyne to wrap that delectable right foot around the ball and arc it towards and then tantalisingly away from goal.

The sort of cross that screams "score me". All of Villa's back three heard the cries, with right-sided centre-back Ezri Konsa flinging himself in an ungainly heap in a futile attempt to stop the inevitable.

It was De Bruyne's 14th assist of the Premier League season and plenty of those have been similarly picture perfect. Number 13 also featured Drinkwater in the rear-view mirror for a simple pass to Sergio Aguero, who rifled in spectacularly from 20 yards to set himself on the way to a hat-trick.

Aguero's part in this scintillating 6-1 spree saw him pass Thierry Henry as the Premier League's top-scoring overseas player and Alan Shearer as the man with the largest collection of trebles (12) in the competition.

But there is no doubt De Bruyne is the beating heart of this City team, something that has become abundantly clear over recent weeks in the face of a new reality established by Jurgen Klopp's relentless and ravenous Liverpool.

Without wishing to underplay Guardiola's achievement in marching an intricate, high-end team to back-to-back Premier League titles, the past two seasons largely consisted of him sending out his favoured 4-3-3 formation and watching the marvellous Mancunian machine take flight.

Compromised by form and fitness problems for key players this time around, and with Liverpool disappearing over the horizon, the City manager has shuffled his pack into a range of tactical shapes over the past month.

A fluid 4-2-3-1 was rolled out for a 3-0 triumph at Arsenal in December – the second victory in a run of 10 wins from 11 in all competitions, where City began a recent theme of doing decisive damage before half-time.

De Bruyne ran the show as a number 10, scything a bouncing ball into the top corner with outstanding technique and curling home a more controlled effort either side of bursting through the right-hand side of the Gunners defence to set up Raheem Sterling.

There were similar antics the following weekend, from the right this time, as the Etihad Stadium bellowed De Bruyne's name after another assist that relegated a Jesus finish to a role in the supporting cast. High-flying Leicester were condemned to a 3-1 defeat.

City's only defeat in this prolific sequence came amid Ederson's early red card at Wolves. Guardiola substituted De Bruyne – whose throughball created Sterling's second of the game – and watched a 2-1 lead become a 3-2 loss.

A 3-4-3 reboot followed a lacklustre first half against Sheffield United. Guardiola deployed De Bruyne as a deep-lying and roving midfield general, who tore forward to make the points safe having set up Aguero to break the deadlock.

That configuration remained for a 2-1 win over Everton before De Bruyne excelled as one of Guardiola's false nines in a beguiling besting of Manchester United in the EFL Cup. He left Phil Jones twisted and bereft on the turf for the third goal in a 3-1 semi-final first-leg win.

It was back to old faithful and 4-3-3 at Villa Park, with De Bruyne lurching low and high into those pockets of maximum destruction. He even managed to create Riyad Mahrez's opener without touching the ball thanks to a delightful dummy.

City's newfound flexibility bodes well for when their Champions League campaign resumes with a mouth-watering last-16 clash against Real Madrid. Opening up these new shape-shifting possibilities would have been impossible for City and Guardiola without their Belgian master key.

Pep Guardiola hailed Sergio Aguero as "a legend" after the Manchester City striker broke two records in Sunday's 6-1 win over Aston Villa.

Aguero netted three times as he surpassed Thierry Henry as the Premier League's top-scoring non-Englishman, while he is now the division's leading scorer of hat-tricks after completing his 12th at Villa Park.

Although the hosts were charitable in their defending, Aguero's opener showed his clinical finishing ability as he lashed home from outside the box.

A jinking run and finish doubled his tally before an emphatic close-range effort secured the matchball and the warm praise of his manager.

"He's a legend and the legend rises tonight," Guardiola told Sky Sports after a match in which Riyad Mahrez scored twice and Gabriel Jesus also netted.

"Thierry Henry is one of the most incredible players to play in this league and he will be proud that Sergio is the guy who breaks his record. He was a legend and Sergio is the same.

"We congratulated him in the locker room because to score this amount of goals means you have done for many, many years a lot of good things.

"He's been consistent for many, many years, so an incredible compliment for him.

"The most important thing is he is an incredible person. You cannot achieve this without being a guy who loves to play football and in the final third he is the guy who has the goal in his head."

Villa boss Dean Smith was left to reflect on a one-sided contest in which his side were second best throughout, a late Anwar El Ghazi penalty providing scant consolation.

"It was a chastening experience," he conceded. "We know they are a top-class team but some of the goals we have given away were dreadful. The third one probably summed it up.

"They had 15 or 16 passes and we hadn't laid a glove on them. They have been allowed to pass the ball too easily and Aguero sticks it in the top corner from 20 yards.

"Mahrez got into the penalty box and under no pressure passes into the bottom corner. It is hard when you are three goals down against a team of this quality. The three players that scored today are worth more than my whole squad.

"They kept going but we shouldn't be sitting here happy with ourselves and we're not. We are embarrassed."

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