Thomas Tuchel believes Chelsea cannot hope to compete in a title battle with Manchester City when they are deprived of key players.

The Blues boss said Chelsea would have to "over-perform" to be in the Premier League trophy hunt, although he claims Pep Guardiola's City side are beatable in any one-off game.

Chelsea travel to face City at the Etihad Stadium on Saturday, and defeat would see the European champions fall 13 points behind the leaders with 16 games remaining.

Tuchel has seen centre-back Andreas Christensen ruled out of the game after testing positive for COVID-19, and such cases, along with a string of recent injuries, have significantly weakened Chelsea.

Pointing to City's strong record of keeping players available, Tuchel said that "maybe it's luck or they do it better".

Chelsea have elected to recall Kenedy from a loan spell at Flamengo to bolster their resources, and Tuchel said he could offer a solution at left wing-back, with Ben Chilwell sidelined.

City simply have strong options in every department, and Tuchel said: "They are the benchmark, they are the best team in England right now. This is something we have to admit realistically.

"We don't think a lot in the scenarios of 'what happens if?'. Let's play the game. I'm always in for a good fight, but I'm also very realistic. We are always up for a good fight with Man City and always there to push them to the limit and ask them questions they maybe don't like to answer.

"But they're very strong, very consistent, and perform on the absolute highest level.

"They opened the gap not over the last month, but they opened the gap over the last years. We will come up with a plan and push and help and support in the best way with genuine belief, but a team is a different team if everybody is available."

Reece James, Chelsea's attacking right wing-back, is, like Chilwell, out for the long term, and the England duo have been sorely missed.

To lose Christensen is another major blow, and Tuchel said it made Chelsea's task "even tougher".

"But does that make it impossible? No," he added. "For 90 minutes you can do anything, you can be brave, play with courage. You need a bit of luck."

Tuchel said Chelsea took the "wrong approach" in their previous game with City this season, saying they were "too passive and too defensive" when losing 1-0 at Stamford Bridge in September, declaring it was a "lesson learned".

"We have a good squad with a fantastic mentality," Tuchel said. "We need a bit more of a fight to bring out the extra edges.

"It's not enough to find even 100 per cent; we need to over-perform to catch City to be on top of the Premier League. To over-perform, you need simply everybody."

Manchester City and Chelsea were both in the market for a striker ahead of the 2021-22 season.

Although Chelsea sealed Romelu Lukaku's return – for a club-record fee reported to be £97.5million – City were unable to break Tottenham's resolve and sign Harry Kane.

For a brief time towards the end of August, it seemed Cristiano Ronaldo would be heading to the Etihad Stadium. Yet City again came away empty-handed – Ronaldo, like Lukaku, returning to a former club as he joined rivals Manchester United.

Indeed, City were once linked with Lukaku, with the forward himself claiming he had turned down an approach in 2020. But Pep Guardiola's team have, so far, cast aside any doubts that a lack of an out-and-out striker would cost them dearly.

City looked set to be in a three-way title race earlier in the season, alongside Chelsea and Liverpool. Heading into their second top-flight match of 2022, they are 10 points clear of the Blues and 11 clear of the Reds.

City turned in a statement performance in a 1-0 win at Stamford Bridge in September and, while rumours swirl of impending approaches for Erling Haaland or Dusan Vlahovic, two of Europe's brightest striking prospects, it will be Guardiola's 4-3-3, false nine system that Thomas Tuchel must look to counter on Saturday.

Using Opta data, Stats Perform assesses how the respective attacks have stacked up this season.

Rom's return

It would be fair to say Lukaku's return to Stamford Bridge has not yet matched what was expected. Having led Inter to their first Serie A title in 11 years, Lukaku re-signed for Chelsea to much fanfare and, undoubtedly, as one of the most fearsome finishers in European football.

Lukaku's second Chelsea debut could hardly have gone better as he opened the scoring against Arsenal after just 15 minutes, putting his strength, pace and positioning prowess on full display.

Yet he has so far failed to hit his stride. His five league goals from 13 appearances ranks him behind Mason Mount and Jorginho (both six) in Chelsea's squad, albeit the latter has netted all of his from the penalty spot.

Lukaku's goal return has come from a total of 22 shots, the fifth-most in Chelsea's squad, at an average of 2.3 per 90 minutes played. However, his rate of scoring every 166 minutes in the league puts him top of Chelsea's squad in that metric.

But that has been another issue with his comeback. Lukaku has featured for just 828 minutes in the league, starting only eight times, with 12 team-mates accumulating more game time.

An injury sustained in a Champions League win over Malmo in October kept him out of action for several weeks and he subsequently contracted COVID-19.

Then, late in December after he scored in successive matches against Aston Villa and Brighton and Hove Albion, Sky Italia released an interview, conducted several weeks previously, in which Lukaku questioned Tuchel's tactics and suggested he could leave Chelsea.

Tuchel reacted strongly, dropping the forward for a pivotal clash with Liverpool on January 2, which finished 2-2. Lukaku apologised and returned to Chelsea's side for the first leg of their EFL Cup semi-final against Tottenham.

One of Lukaku's complaints was about how Tuchel has used him so far. 

Last season, playing typically in a 3-5-2 system at Inter, Lukaku averaged three shots, 1.5 attempts on target, 7.3 touches in the opposition box and 1.6 chances created per 90 minutes, across 36 Serie A appearances. But those figures have so far dropped to 2.4 shots, 0.9 attempts on target, 6.4 touches in the opponent's box and 1.5 chances created this term, with the forward deployed as a target man to combine with Mason Mount, Kai Havertz, Christian Pulisic and the rest of Chelsea's attack.

It is a role that does not seem to suit Lukaku best, though Tuchel has made it clear who the boss is.

False nines and a flying full-back

Chelsea and City have played 21 league games this season, but Guardiola's team have netted six goals more. They average one every 36 minutes, compared to Chelsea's 43, and have out-shot the Blues 391 to 320.

This is all without a recognised number nine but, as proved by their charge to a third league title in four seasons in 2020-21, City have cracked the code of having any player but a centre-forward lead their line.

Whether it is Phil Foden, Kevin De Bruyne, Raheem Sterling, Jack Grealish, Ilkay Gundogan, the magnificent Bernardo Silva or, occasionally, the man who wears nine, Gabriel Jesus, City have a wealth of stellar options to slot into that role.

Sterling and Silva, who has been in sensational form all season, lead the way with seven goals each. It is a testament to Guardiola's man management that the duo, who might have left the club in 2021, are in such rich form.

Riyad Mahrez – the only City attacker with a consistent position – has netted six. De Bruyne and Foden have added five apiece.

City share their goals around for fun, while three players (Sterling, Silva and Jesus) have had over 100 touches in the opposition box, with Grealish on 99. No Chelsea player has managed more than 76 (Mount). 

De Bruyne's 36 chances created is more than any other player in City or Chelsea's squads, while the Belgian is level with Foden and Gundogan for big chances created (six), with Mount the only Blues player able to match them.

Allowing whichever front five plays for City to flourish is Rodri, who has taken the mantle from Fernandinho at the base of midfield, and creative support comes from the superb Joao Cancelo.

He has provided four league assists from 22 chances created, which ranks him sixth in the competition for defenders, with his four big chances tied for fourth, behind Trent Alexander-Arnold (11), Andrew Robertson and Reece James (five), who is a big injury miss for Chelsea.

It is not just Cancelo's passing and crossing that supports City's attack, however, with the full-back registering fourth in the league, behind three club-mates, for total carries (380) and sixth for carry distance (3,867 metres). Thiago Silva is the sole Chelsea player to have a place in the top 10 for either statistic.

Finely balanced

While City seemingly have the edge heading into Saturday's contest, Tuchel found a way to thwart Guardiola's system last season.

City countered this with their aggressive approach at Stamford Bridge but only four months previously, Guardiola's men fell short in their first Champions League final – Havertz scoring the winner in a match that perhaps forced City to make their move for Kane.

Tuchel won all three of his encounters with City in 2020-21, though those matches are the only times he has beaten Guardiola, who won three of their five Bundesliga meetings.

Chelsea went toe-to-toe with Liverpool and came out with a point earlier this month, though if Chelsea are to rope City back in, they need their investment in Lukaku to pay off.

Should City's death by a thousand cuts prevail, Chelsea's title challenge might well and truly have bitten the dust.

Erling Haaland is the hottest property in football right now.

It is expected that Haaland will leave Borussia Dortmund at the end of this season although that is not confirmed.

The 21-year-old Norwegian forward is being chased by several big clubs.

TOP STORY – HAALAND SET TO DECIDE ON CLUB FUTURE

AS claims that Haaland is set to make a definitive call on his future as several top clubs circle for his signature.

Borussia Dortmund are set to meet with Haaland's representatives next week to discuss his plans according to Marca.

Haaland is being pursued by Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Paris Saint-Germain Manchester United, Chelsea and Manchester City.

ROUND-UP

- Roma head coach Jose Mourinho has reached out to Tottenham's Tanguy Ndombele about a potential switch to Italy, claims Telefoot. Mourinho worked with Ndombele during his time at Spurs.

- Football Insider reports PSG midfielder Georginio Wijnaldum has no interest in a move to cashed-up Newcastle United having been linked with his former club.

- The Telegraph reports that Burnley's New Zealand international forward Chris Wood will undergo a medical with Newcastle on Wednesday ahead of a move to the Magpies.

- Tottenham have contacted Jesse Lingard's representatives to discuss a free agency move in the off-season from Manchester United, claims Football London.

- Sevilla's interest in signing Manchester United's Anthony Martial is fading given the Red Devils' demands for the French forward, reports Marca.

- The Mail claims that Marcus Rashford and Manchester United are set to open talks before the end of the season on a new contract.

Arsenal have fallen out of the Premier League's top tier in recent years.

But the Gunners are determined to re-emerge under manager Mikel Arteta.

With Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang set to leave, Arsenal are ready to spend.

TOP STORY – ARSENAL DETERMINED TO LAND VLAHOVIC

Arsenal are determined to land Dusan Vlahovic despite the Serbian wanting £300,000 (€360,000) a week in wages, says the Daily Mail.

The Fiorentina forward is being chased by a host of clubs but the Gunners are ready to sign him despite a transfer bill around £150 million (€180m), with La Viola asking for a £58m (€70m) fee.

Juventus, Tottenham, Manchester City and Manchester United have all been linked with the 21-year-old.

 

ROUND-UP

- Manchester City could make a move for Real Madrid midfielder Luka Modric claims El Nacional. The Croatian is not happy with the terms offered by Madrid on a new deal with his current contract set to expire at the end of this season.

- Chelsea defender Antonio Rudiger prefers a move to Real Madrid over Paris Saint-Germain when his current contract expires according to Football London. Both clubs have offered deals to the Germany international.

- The Mirror reports that Edinson Cavani has committed to Manchester United for the remainder of the season after discussions with interim manager Ralf Rangnick.

- Barcelona have approached former Chelsea midfielder Oscar about joining the Catalans, claims TNT Sports Brasil. Oscar is currently contracted with Chinese club Shanghai Port.

- Tottenham are ready to sell record signing Tanguy Ndombele during the January transfer window, reports the Daily Mail. PSG, Milan, Roma, Lyon, Barcelona and Newcastle United are among the clubs interested in Ndombele according to the Star.

West Ham were handed a tasty trip to sixth-tier Kidderminster Harriers as the FA Cup served up a David and Goliath tie in the fourth-round draw.

David Moyes' Hammers beat top-flight rivals Leeds United 2-0 on Sunday to pass their first test in this season's competition, and now face a game they dare not lose.

Kidderminster and West Ham are five divisions apart in the English football system and both sit fifth in their respective leagues – the National League North and Premier League.

A stunning 2-1 third-round win over Championship outfit Reading carried Russell Penn's Kidderminster through to the last-32 stage, and now the West Midlands side can prepare for the visit of top-flight high-flyers to Aggborough.

Cup holders Leicester City, who saw off Watford on Saturday, were drawn to travel to either Nottingham Forest or Arsenal, who went into battle at the City Ground on Sunday evening.

Among the Premier League elite, Chelsea were handed a home draw against League One side Plymouth Argyle, Manchester City will host Fulham, Liverpool will tackle Cardiff City at Anfield, and Tottenham will welcome Brighton and Hove Albion.

Manchester United, who face Aston Villa at Old Trafford on Monday, will face Middlesbrough if they come through the tussle with Steven Gerrard's side.

There was perhaps a tinge of disappointment for League One side Cambridge United, who were not rewarded for upsetting Newcastle United with another glamorous tie against Premier League opposition. Instead, they will entertain Luton Town of the Championship, while National League side Boreham Wood, who knocked out AFC Wimbledon, were handed a trip to Bournemouth.

FA Cup fourth-round draw in full:

Crystal Palace v Hartlepool United, Bournemouth v Boreham Wood, Huddersfield Town v Barnsley, Peterborough United v QPR, Cambridge United v Luton Town, Southampton v Coventry City, Chelsea v Plymouth, Everton v Brentford, Kidderminster v West Ham, Manchester United or Aston Villa v Middlesbrough, Tottenham v Brighton and Hove Albion, Liverpool v Cardiff City, Stoke City v Wigan Athletic, Nottingham Forest or Arsenal v Leicester City, Manchester City v Fulham, Wolves v Norwich City.

Ties to be played on the weekend of February 4-7.

Kylian Mbappe is widely expected to join Real Madrid at the end of this season.

The 23-year-old attacker has stalled on a new contract offer at Paris Saint-Germain.

Madrid have been circling for Mbappe's signature for a long time and had multiple bids rejected in 2021.

 

TOP STORY – MBAPPE COULD STILL RE-SIGN WITH PSG

Mbappe could spring a surprise and renew his current PSG deal prior to the end of this season, claims Le Parisien.

The 2018 World Cup winner had been expected to become a free agent when his contract expires on June 30 and join Madrid .

Le Parisien claims that PSG have hope that Mbappe may pen an extension to force a transfer fee from Los Blancos, should they pursue a move. Mbappe is still undecided on his future, according to the report.

 

ROUND-UP

- Manchester United 's superstar forward Cristiano Ronaldo has held crisis talks with his agent Jorge Mendes as he considers his future with the Red Devils, according to The Sun. Ronaldo reportedly may leave United depending on their choice of a new permanent manager.

- El Nacional claims that Liverpool are ready to offer Barcelona teenager Gavi a deal worth £80,000 (€96k) per week to secure his signature, while Manchester City are also interested. Barca have a £42m (€50m) release cause in the 17-year-old's contract.

- Arsenal want to sign a new midfielder in January with Lyon's Bruno Guimaraes on their radar while a loan deal for Arthur Melo was discussed but has not advanced to talks with Juventus yet, claims Fabrizio Romano.

- Argentinean forward Dario Benedetto is set to return to his homeland to join Boca Juniors from Marseille although the deal may take several days to complete, reports Cesar Luis Merlo.

- Nicolo Schira claims that Newcastle United have opened discussions with Sevilla on a four-year deal to sign Brazilian defender Diego Carlos .

- West Ham United and Newcastle may be priced out of their pursuit for Marseille's Boubacar Kamara,  who wants a £150,000-per-week (€180k) deal according to The Sun.

Manchester City youngster Cole Palmer could have a similar trajectory to that of Phil Foden, according to Pep Guardiola's assistant Rodolfo Borrell.

Palmer played a crucial role in City's 4-1 FA Cup third-round win over Swindon Town on Friday, setting up the opener for Bernardo Silva before netting his maiden goal in the competition late on with a gorgeous strike.

It was an all-round positive display from the right-winger, whose close ball control and technical ability made him a constant nuisance to the fourth-tier opposition, while he also proved a reliable creative outlet.

No player on the pitch could match his four chances created, and his overall positivity on and off the ball led to him registering four more touches (14) in the penalty area than anyone else.

That led to a game-high total of five shots, four of which were from inside the box, including his well-taken goal.

 

The 19-year-old was making his 10th competitive appearance of the season across all competitions and looked at home alongside seasoned superstars like Kevin De Bruyne and Silva.

Borrell, who was in charge due to Guardiola testing positive for coronavirus, suggested they are looking at Palmer's development in a similar light to that of Foden.

With it put to Borrell that Palmer looked "special", the coach told ITV Sport: "Yes, it's true, we have him training with us [the first team] on a regular basis.

"He has great quality, everyone has been able to see this. He's a great player, still needs developing quite a lot but there is obviously a lot of talent there.

"Hopefully very soon he can play more minutes with us like Phil Foden a couple of years ago."

Borrell attempted to temper any comparisons between the two City youth products, but he did not hide his excitement about Palmer.

He continued: "They're completely different players and obviously Phil has shown… I'm not going say [Foden's shown] more than him, but obviously he's older than [Palmer] and has had more opportunities.

 

"At the end of the day, they're two great players. Right now, Phil is already established in our first team and in the national team.

"With Cole, he obviously has the talent and the ingredients to become [something similar] but let's see.

"It's in his hands, he has to keep working hard and performing consistently at a good level."

Ultimately there was little for City to worry about at the County Ground, with Guardiola's absence no more than a footnote.

As it turned out, he had little to do with the game once it started, such is his belief in his coaches.

Borrell added: "We were in touch at half-time. There was not a massive change because everything was as planned as before.

"He has great confidence in all of us. Not just me but all the backroom staff, we have been with him a long time.

 

"We planned all of this together but to be honest with you, after the start of the game he said, 'listen, do as if I wasn't there and obviously if you need anything, keep in touch, and we'll chat at half-time'.

"He has huge confidence in us and I'm grateful, we are grateful. Everything was as planned and it has been a great experience for me and for all of us."

Manchester City ran out comfortable 4-1 winners over hosts Swindon Town in Friday's FA Cup third-round clash.

City, under the guidance of assistant coach Rodolfo Borrell after Pep Guardiola contracted COVID-19, never looked in danger of suffering a first FA Cup defeat to a side from the fourth tier or lower since 1984.

The visitors were cruising by the half-hour mark, with Bernardo Silva and Gabriel Jesus getting the goals.

Ilkay Gundogan buried a fine free-kick with just under an hour played to put the game beyond doubt, before Harry McKirdy got a consolation.

Cole Palmer's gorgeous late strike finished the League Two side off and capped a great performance late on.

Swindon were lucky to hold out for 14 minutes, but Silva – who had previously wasted two great chances – was never going to miss when the excellent Palmer presented him with a tap-in.

City then pounced on Louis Reed's questionable flick just outside his own area as Swindon attempted to play out from the back, with Kevin De Bruyne feeding Jesus into the box for a simple finish.

The contest was over – if it wasn't already – in the 59th minute as Gundogan cleverly curled his free-kick around the wall and into the bottom-right corner.

The Swindon goalkeeper's wall positioning may have played a part, though Lewis Ward went some way to making amends when saving Jesus' penalty after Jordan Lyden fouled the Brazilian.

City could not keep a clean sheet, with Jonny Williams capitalising on Rodri's error and playing McKirdy into the area to finish past the suspect Zack Steffen.

But the away side had the last laugh, Palmer planting an exceptional finish into the top-left corner.

 

Manchester City defender Benjamin Mendy was released on bail at Chester Crown Court on Friday.

The France international, who has been charged with seven counts of rape and one count of sexual assault, had been in custody since last August.

Mendy was charged following allegations of attacks on five women that took place between October 2020 and August 2021.

The 27-year-old was granted bail at a hearing on Friday.

He had been due to stand trial this month, but that was put back until June at the earliest.

Mendy had reportedly been moved from HMP Altcourse prison in Liverpool to Strangeways jail in Manchester last month.

Co-defendant Louis Saha Matturie also appeared at the hearing in Chester.

Premier League champions City suspended their big-money signing Mendy after he was charged last August.

Premier League managers are already feeling the strain amid cascading numbers of COVID-19 cases and mid-season injuries. Now many top bosses stand to lose stars to the Africa Cup of Nations.

Africa's greatest football show – now commonly known as AFCON – gets under way on Sunday in Cameroon.

Although the 2019 edition was held in June and July, it has historically been a January-into-February tournament and has returned to that place on the calendar.

A host of Premier League big names are hoping to make an impact during the four-week tournament, which falls slap-bang in the middle of European club campaigns, causing a major clash of competitions.

Premier League clubs certainly cannot complain of a lack of fair warning. It was June 2020 when African football chiefs decided the 2021 edition of the tournament would have to be pushed back by 12 months to a January 2022 start, in the hope the coronavirus crisis would have eased.

Here, Stats Perform takes a look at which teams from the English top flight might feel its impact the most.

Can Reds cling on in title battle?

If Liverpool lose no further ground on leaders Manchester City by the time their stars return from AFCON, then Jurgen Klopp would surely settle for that.

The 2019-20 Premier League champions have taken two points from a possible nine to leave the title as effectively City's to lose, and now Klopp is going to have to get by without Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Naby Keita.

Egyptian striker Salah is the Premier League's leader in goals (16) and assists (9, level with Trent Alexander Arnold) so far this season. He has taken 80 shots in 20 games (38 of these have hit the target), played 12 throughballs and created 40 chances from open play: in each of those categories he is at the top of the Premier League charts for players defined by Opta as forwards.

How do you cope without such a contribution? Having Mane on hand would help, but Mane will be turning out for Senegal, a team who, like Salah's Egypt, are firmly in the mix as serious trophy contenders. Don't expect either back at the end of the group stage.

Mane has eight Premier League goals this term, including the opener at Chelsea recently. That goal return puts Mane joint-second among African scorers in the Premier League this season, level with Watford's Emmanuel Dennis, who is not in Nigeria's squad.

Mane has played 19 throughballs and has made 23 tackles to boot, which is the seventh highest number of tackles by a forward in the league this season, a rarely mentioned attribute of his game. He does not always tackle with his elbow, either.

Keita will presumably be less of a miss, with the Guinean's Anfield contribution remaining underwhelming, but Liverpool have been so hard hit by absentees recently that to lose anybody for up to five weeks is an inconvenience.

They are at least assured of Joel Matip's presence this month. The centre-back last played for Cameroon in 2015 and has retired from international duty. That is bad news for the AFCON hosts but helps Liverpool, given Matip remains a sturdy presence, with a duel success of 69.47 per cent this season ranking him third among Premier League defenders with 10 or more appearances, and a passing accuracy of 88.89 per cent putting him eighth in that metric.

Liverpool only have two league games inked in between now and the end of AFCON, against Brentford and Crystal Palace, but the Reds also have two postponed fixtures to be slipped in somewhere along the line.

Wintertime Blues?

Pep Guardiola's Manchester City hold a 10-point lead over second-placed Chelsea, with Liverpool a point further back but possessing a game in hand on the top two. Reigning champions City have won 11 straight Premier League games and the Citizens have the resources to be able to cope with the short-term loss of Riyad Mahrez, who will captain Algeria.

Mahrez's six goals and four assists this season have come at a startling rate. Given the depth in City's squad, he does not always start, so to appreciate his contribution it is worth looking at his numbers per 90 minutes on the pitch.

The former Leicester City forward is averaging 0.64 goals and 0.43 assists per 90 minutes – impressively close to Salah's return of 0.81 and 0.45 in those categories – and is one of only four Premier League players with 10 or more appearances to average at least 1.00 goal involvements per 90 (Michael Olise 1.43, Salah 1.26, Roberto Firmino 1.24, Mahrez 1.07).

The Blues of Chelsea may have concerns over the absence of goalkeeper Edouard Mendy, given the Senegalese's stabilising influence at the back. His save percentage of 77.14 has only been beaten this season in the league by Wolves' Jose Sa (80.82) and Arsenal's Aaron Ramsdale (77.46).

Spaniard Kepa Arrizabalaga struggled in the early stages of his Chelsea career and is now the undoubted understudy.

Yet Kepa's form when given an opportunity this season has not given such cause for concern. The former Athletic Bilbao goalkeeper has been chiefly used in cup action, and he has achieved a remarkable save percentage of 81.48, suggesting that for a short run of games, he could be a perfectly able deputy.

Can an exodus to Africa affect the race for Europe?

Will fourth-placed Arsenal miss Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang? It seems unlikely now, given he was dropped and stripped of the captaincy after a disciplinary breach before heading off to join Gabon. He has not played for a month. The Gunners won five games in a row without him, including four in the league, before being unlucky to lose to Manchester City.

Cold facts tell us Arsenal have a points average of 1.9 per Premier League game when Aubameyang has started games this season, and 1.5 when he has been either a substitute or out of the team, but those figures may not be significant given the momentum Mikel Arteta's players have built in the recent absence of the 32-year-old. His continuing exile from the first team seems unlikely to cause much consternation.

For manager Arteta to lose Thomas Partey (Ghana) at this point is a blow though, with the former Atletico Madrid player having been excellent in the 2-1 defeat to City, having been slowly building up to such a performance. He had more touches, won more duels, made more tackles and played more successful passes than any other Arsenal player.

Arsenal have a big derby at Tottenham coming up on January 16, and they might feel Partey's absence that day, particularly given Spurs, who currently sit sixth, are sending no current first-teamers away to AFCON.

Splitting the north London rivals for now are West Ham, in fifth, and it will surely have hurt David Moyes to wave off Said Benrahma for a month of Algeria duty. The playmaker has five goals and four assists in the league this season, as well as making 83 ball recoveries and creating 21 chances in open play. That makes him one of only 13 players in the competition to top both 80 recoveries and 20 open-play chances created, and one of only five Premier League stars to tick both boxes and score at least five times. Crystal Palace's Wilfried Zaha, away with Ivory Coast, is another member of that small group.

Seventh-placed Manchester United will lose Eric Bailly to Ivory Coast too. But with Phil Jones back in the first team, will Bailly be missed? The former Villarreal centre-back has played just 217 minutes in the Premier League this season. United youth prospect Hannibal Mejbri is also away, in his case with Tunisia.

Further into mid-table, Wolves must find an alternative to the excellent Romain Saiss (tackle success rate 72.73 per cent) on the left side of their defence, after he joined up with Morocco. Brighton and Hove Albion powerhouse Yves Bissouma has the highest tackle success rate among midfielders to have made more than 40 such challenges in the Premier League this season (50 attempted, 35 won: 70 per cent hit rate) and he will line up for Mali after ending an international exile.

Leicester City sent away striker Kelechi Iheanacho (2 goals, 4 assists this season) for Nigeria service at a bad time for the Foxes, given injured Jamie Vardy faces several weeks out of action.

Palace are firmly in favour of players heading away to represent their countries, but the Eagles never particularly like to be without Zaha (5 goals, 1 assist, 86 dribbles). Since his return from Manchester United in August 2014, Palace have averaged 1.2 points and a 32.9 per cent win percentage with Zaha in their starting line-up, and 0.9 points and a 24.5 win percentage when he has not been in that matchday XI. The loss of Cheikhou Kouyate (80.56 per cent success rate from 36 tackles) to Senegal duty may also diminish the sturdiness of Patrick Vieira's Eagles spine.

Can Clarets cope without Cornet?

The relegation scrap seems more likely to be affected by transfer market activity than departures to AFCON.

Newcastle United and Norwich City, the league's bottom two, are sending nobody away, while fourth-bottom Watford have kept Dennis (8 goals, 5 assists) and it remains to be seen what happens to Ismaila Sarr (5 goals), who has been absent with injury of late but has headed for checks with Senegal doctors.

Burnley, who sit 18th, are seemingly the team to watch carefully here. Maxwel Cornet, now away with Ivory Coast, has scored six Premier League goals from just 10 shots on target, and Sean Dyche must find a way to make the Clarets impactful without the former Lyon man.

Manchester City assistant Rodolfo Borrell is concerned about the escalating number of coronavirus cases within the club, but is hopeful Friday's FA Cup third-round tie with Swindon Town will go ahead as planned.

The Premier League leaders confirmed on Thursday that manager Pep Guardiola and assistant Juanma Lillo are among those to have tested positive for COVID-19.

Twenty-one members of City's first-team bubble – seven players and 14 backroom staff – are isolating and will miss the trip to fourth-tier Swindon.

That match is still scheduled to go ahead as planned, though that may yet change depending on how the coronavirus situation develops ahead of the game.

Following the fixture with Swindon, City are scheduled to face second-placed Chelsea in the Premier League at the Etihad Stadium on January 15.

Borrell will take charge of City on Friday and says it is a case of taking it one game at a time.

"At the moment we have seven players unavailable and up to 14 staff, so it's quite a big outbreak," he said at a pre-match news conference on Thursday.

"Pep is fine. He has the virus but he hasn't got a lot of symptoms. We are permanently in touch. We communicate by calls and technology.

"We will play with the ones we have available. We don't have much more, but our aim is to keep playing as much as we can trying to respect all competitions.

"At this moment we can fill the team. I don't know what will happen in the following days but right now it's an easy line-up to decide.

"We will play with what we've got. We have some first-team players and some others that will come from our second team."

Asked if he is confident the Swindon game will definitely go ahead, Borrell replied: "We have prepared mentally for the game. We have to prepare for the game to happen. 

"This is what we have done until now and we'll keep going this way. If then tomorrow for whatever reason it's not possible because of more news, this is out of our reach to know.

"But right now, yes, we are prepared to play the game and we are mentally ready for it."

Borrell did not disclose which players have tested positive for coronavirus, but the outbreak is serious enough for City to have to turn to their youth squad.

City have won 13 of their last 14 matches in all competitions ahead of their first meeting with Swindon in any competition since a 2-0 FA Cup third-round win in January 2002. 

The Citizens have come out on top in 10 of their last 11 meetings with Swindon, with these matches taking place between 1988 and that most recent game 20 years ago.

Though City have progressed from their last seven FA Cup ties against sides from the fourth tier or lower, last losing against Blackpool in January 1984, Borrell is taking nothing for granted this weekend.

"You know better than me that lesser teams beat big opponents [in this competition]," he added.

"It creates a great atmosphere, everyone wants to make their village, town or city proud. There is a difference in terms of quality of players, this is obvious, but in these games everything gets very close.

"The FA Cup is very special. This is one of the titles we are most proud of achieving in the last six years. It's important to do well and get into the next stage. It will be very close, like any other tie in this competition."

Arsenal have been fined by the Football Association for failing to control their players' conduct during their 2-1 Premier League defeat to Manchester City.

League leaders City snatched a late winner through Rodri at the Emirates Stadium on New Year's Day, in a match littered with contentious moments.

Arsenal were convinced they should have had a penalty for Ederson's tackle on Martin Odegaard in the first half, while they were then left outraged that a spot-kick was awarded City's way for Granit Xhaka's challenge on Bernardo Silva.

Gabriel Magalhaes was booked for dissent during the aftermath of that decision, with the centre-back then receiving another booking two minutes later for clattering into Gabriel Jesus.

Arsenal's players surrounded referee Stuart Attwell and, for that, the club have been handed an FA fine of £20,000.

An FA statement said Arsenal had "failed to control their players in an orderly fashion".

The Gunners have accepted the fine and admitted the charge, meaning there will be no appeal.

After the game, goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale and assistant coach Albert Stuivenberg, who stood in for the isolating Mikel Arteta, questioned the consistency of the officiating, in particular the use of VAR.

Arsenal's defeat allowed West Ham and Tottenham, who both won, to close the gap to one and two points respectively.

Pep Guardiola has tested positive for coronavirus and will miss Manchester City's FA Cup tie against Swindon Town, the Premier League champions have confirmed.

Guardiola and his assistant Juanma Lillo recorded positive test results on Tuesday, and both are now isolating.

City now have 21 members of their squad – seven players and 14 backroom staff – in isolation.

Fourth-tier Swindon host City in the FA Cup third round on Friday, and assistant coach Rodolfo Borrell will take charge of the Premier League leaders.

Guardiola joins three fellow Premier League managers who have had to isolate in the last week.

Arsenal manager and Guardiola's former assistant Mikel Arteta had to watch on from home as the Gunners lost 2-1 to City on New Year's Day.

Jurgen Klopp, meanwhile, was absent for Liverpool's draw with Chelsea on Sunday while on Thursday, Burnley confirmed Sean Dyche was isolating after testing positive.

New Barcelona signing Ferran Torres thanked Pep Guardiola for his teachings as he admitted he always planned to return to LaLiga from Manchester City.

Torres was presented as a new Barca player on Monday after securing a move to Camp Nou in a deal that could be worth €65million.

The Spain international, who is recovering from a foot injury, is likely to have to wait until later this month to make his debut as Barca must offload players before registering their new forward to avoid breaching their salary cap.

Torres spent 18 months with City after joining from Valencia for around €23m (£20m), making 43 appearances in all competitions.

Among City players to feature for at least 1,000 minutes across all competitions since the start of last season, Torres boasted the highest goals per 90 minutes return (0.55) prior to his move to Barca being confirmed.

His expected goals on a per-90-minute basis of 0.44, was bettered by just Raheem Sterling (0.47) over that same period.

 

The 21-year-old was more of a winger at Valencia but was often deployed as a central striker for City, and it is expected he will play in a similar position under Xavi at Barca.

Torres credits Guardiola with helping him to become a versatile option, telling reporters: "I learned so much. Guardiola is one of the best coaches in the world.

"He got me to play in different positions, and I've learned to play as a striker. I leave with really beautiful memories, and they help me to face this challenge with ambition, humility and a lot of excitement.

"I always said I went to Manchester City to be able to come back one day to one of the big clubs in Spain. From the first moment Barca said they wanted me, I didn't even think about it.

"I come playing as a striker, but I always say my position is right-winger. But a player, when he is versatile, helps the coach more. That's what I intend to do.

"As long as I play, I don't mind what the position is."

Thomas Tuchel insists Chelsea will never give up hope of chasing down "winning machine" Manchester City but accepts his side have to be realistic about their title aspirations.

City opened up an 11-point lead on second-placed Chelsea at the Premier League summit with a dramatic 2-1 comeback win against Arsenal at Emirates Stadium on Saturday.

Only twice in the competition's history has a team had a bigger advantage at the end of New Year's Day – Manchester United in 1993-94 and City in 2017-18 (both 12 points).

Chelsea will attempt to close the gap when they take on Liverpool, who are one point further back in third with a game in hand, in Sunday's contest at Stamford Bridge.

The Blues enter the match on the back of a 1-1 home draw with Brighton and Hove Albion and have taken just six points from the last 12 on offer.

That disappointing run has coincided with Chelsea being without some key players due to coronavirus and injuries, and Tuchel believes his side would be far closer to City if they had a deeper squad.

"At this particular moment, that's the key advantage," he said when asked why the gap on City is so vast. 

"The second thing is they take these advantages – they're relentless, they know what it takes to produce these high point seasons over and over. 

"There's quality all over, not only in the squad but the management, how it's run, it's a winning machine. It's not only about having an advantage but making it an advantage."

City accrued 110 points in the last calendar year, compared to 83 for Chelsea and 77 for Liverpool, and have won each of their last 11 Premier League matches.
 
Chelsea led the way at the top of the division at the start of December, but hopes of a title race that will go down to the wire appear to be fading by the week.

"They're very good. We have to admit where we come from, from one year ago, and when you look at 2021 we are 20 points behind," Tuchel added. 

"We have to be careful that you are ambitious but not overambitious about catching Man City in half a year. 

"This can happen, but we have to go through this because this is part of the process of closing the gap. Everyone here wants to make it happen fast. 

"Two, three weeks ago we had a super close title race. We had three teams competing. Now we lost the edge a little bit because of circumstances we cannot influence.

"That has given City a certain advantage and belief and they are five years now of consistency with the squad they have. 

"It makes it hard. But it does not make it impossible; we will never stop believing and stop pushing but we have to be realistic."

City are going in search of their fifth Premier League title and a fourth in the past five seasons.

But Tuchel does not fear the Premier League becoming a closed shop like the Bundesliga, where Bayern Munich have dominated for the past decade.

"As long as I am here I will do nothing else but to try and make other teams underperform," the former Borussia Dortmund coach said.

"We will not stop chasing, not stop believing. That is maybe the difference to the situation right now in the Bundesliga. We have to believe, but we have to face reality. 

"It helps in life if you are dreaming and you are realistic at some point. If you look at 2021, City had something like 20 more points than us and Liverpool – we're next in that race. 

"Everything has to fall in place for us so we can produce that consistent level that City and normally Liverpool produce. There's no need to get negative, no need to lose faith. 

"The opposite. We will stay hungry. Jurgen [Klopp] did it with Dortmund, we came close [at Dortmund] but were stopped in the middle of the process. 

"Both of us know how to catch favourites, we will not stop dreaming."

Sunday's encounter will be the 17th between Tuchel and Klopp-managed sides, with the latter boasting nine wins to his compatriot's three across those previous meetings.

However, Klopp will not be present at Stamford Bridge after returning a suspected positive coronavirus test on Saturday.

Tuchel in unbeaten in three against Klopp, but he does not believe he stands a chance against the Liverpool boss when it comes down to a personality contest.

"This is maybe the most unfair question that you could ask me," he said. "Jurgen could arrive without any team and the stadium would be full! I cannot do this, I will never try. He can do it."

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