Pep Guardiola reiterated his admiration for the free-kicks of James Ward-Prowse, insisting the Southampton midfielder is the world's best over dead balls.

The Manchester City manager described Ward-Prowse as the best free-kick-taker he had ever seen in December 2020 after his side won 1-0 at St Mary's Stadium.

The England international scored a spectacular long-range goal in the 3-1 loss to Wolves last week that took him to 12 goals from direct free-kicks in the Premier League, a tally bettered only by David Beckham (18) in the history of the competition.

Since the start of 2012-13, Ward-Prowse's first in England's top flight, only Hakan Calhanoglu (14), Miralem Pjanic (15) and Lionel Messi (33) have scored more often directly from set-pieces. His 12 goals have come from just 90 attempts, though, giving him a 13.3 per cent conversion rate, a figure only bettered by Paulo Dybala (13.5 per cent) among players to score at least 10 such goals in that time.

Ward-Prowse's repertoire goes beyond spectacular goals, though: he has created 224 chances from set-pieces over the past 10 seasons, providing 19 assists, numbers only beaten by Calhanoglu and Dani Parejo in Europe's top leagues.

Ahead of Saturday's match on England's south coast, Guardiola again drew attention to the threat the 27-year-old poses.

"He is the best taker I have ever seen, right now in the world," he said. "No player is a better taker than Ward-Prowse.

"He is so good, maybe we miss a little bit this quality of a football player: a guy who adapts in the same position, a team player, great quality without the ball, with the ball, understanding the game.

"Set-pieces and corners are exceptional. We need to pay more attention."

Beating Southampton away on the final day of the 2017-18 season saw City win their first Premier League title under Guardiola and become the first side in England's top tier to score 100 points in a single season.

Their latest visit offers the chance of another moment of history, as a draw will see Guardiola reach 500 points since he took charge in 2016. City have already accrued at least 38 more than any other team in the competition in that time, and 108 more than Manchester United.

However, when asked about the milestone, Guardiola said: "I'm not thinking of this when it hasn't happened. It will happen sooner or later. Southampton.

"We struggled in the first game last season when we played there. When we played home, we won, but we struggle in the actions. Southampton are a tough team. A real tough team."

Guardiola, who confirmed Riyad Mahrez has been given a week off after Algeria exited the Africa Cup of Nations, has seen his side build up an 11-point lead at the top of the table with one game to go until the Premier League takes a two-week break.

He said there will be no warm-weather training camp in Abu Dhabi during that interval due to concerns around coronavirus.

"We spoke with the club and it’s not safe to go all together with the virus," he said. "Instead, we decided everyone to go for themselves with family and friends."

Pep Guardiola was overjoyed with the match-winning performance of Kevin De Bruyne in Manchester City's 1-0 defeat of Chelsea but is convinced the Belgian has even more to offer.

De Bruyne got City's decisive goal in the second half on Saturday, curling a sumptuous effort past Kepa Arrizabalaga from 25 yards out.

It was his fifth Premier League goal against his former club, a record bettered by no other former Chelsea player, making them his favourite opponent.

Victory put City 13 points clear of Chelsea, and that could yet remain their lead at the summit if Liverpool cannot beat Brentford on Sunday.

De Bruyne now has six league goals this season, as many as he managed in 2020-21, though Guardiola's post-match praise also suggested the City boss does not think his talisman has been playing at his highest level.

"We spoke together and said since we were together, from day one, all we have won and what we have done, we have done it together," Guardiola told BT Sport.

"I want to push him to do it more, he's a world-class player. He has the humility to do everything for the team, and it's not easy to find that.

"He won three Premier League titles and lots of prizes but I still want more of him because I know he can do it. Today the action he has done, I haven't seen it in a long time.

"He has everything. He missed a bit of confidence this season and struggled. He knows what he can do, he's incredibly beloved from all of us.

"He's completely different. His mum and dad can be so proud."

Despite the victory increasing City's lead, Guardiola is not getting sucked into the trap of declaring the title race over.

"That would be a problem now, to [take the gap] for granted," he said. "If Liverpool win the games in hand, it's eight points, not like Chelsea's position.

"Now my job is take from the brains of my players, to not believe what the people say. An example is recently we were winning against Leicester 4-0 after 45 minutes then in 20 minutes it was 4-3.

"We are more than pleased with our position but we've a lot of work to do. My job is to tell them."

Pep Guardiola insisted consistency is the only reason for Manchester City's sizeable lead at the Premier League summit, as he hailed the "exceptional" nature of his side and their long-time rivals Liverpool.

City host Chelsea on Saturday as first take on second, though Guardiola's side currently hold a 10-point advantage, with Liverpool 11 behind in third place.

Following their 1-0 win at Stamford Bridge earlier this season, City are looking to secure the Premier League double over Chelsea for the fourth time, previously doing so in 2009-10, 2015-16 and 2017-18.

They have won their last 11 Premier League games, their fifth such run of 11 or more consecutive victories in the competition.

However, despite his team's healthy lead, Guardiola does not believe Chelsea or Liverpool have dropped off. Instead, he credits City with finding another level of consistency.

"The Premier League is the strongest," he told reporters. 

"We are here now because we were consistent, especially in the toughest month in December, when there were many games and how we overcame the tough situations we had in the squad, problems with injuries and COVID.

"We got results playing really good, but also not good, like against Arsenal how we were able to win. We were consistent. This is the reason why, no secrets.

"My opinion about Liverpool and Chelsea does not change one bit. They are more than excellent teams. One is the champion of Europe, the other is the biggest rival in the last two, three, four seasons.

"Football changes quickly. What you have to do is rise and increase a bit our football compared to the last two teams we've played. We'll have to do it tomorrow to compete."

Guardiola then enthused about the continued level of performance of both City and Liverpool, who have had a thrilling rivalry in recent seasons, adding: "I have to say it was because Liverpool and City were exceptional, not because the others were wrong.

"[Manchester] United were close I remember one year with [Jose] Mourinho, and last season, but we were exceptional. What Liverpool and City have done in the last four years has never been seen before in this country.

"Antonio Conte with Chelsea started a little bit in my first season here but after that Liverpool and City made a step, and I think the other opponents did well, Chelsea, United, Tottenham, but Liverpool and City were out of this world.

"I'm proud, after six years together, five years of success, that in January we are competing in every single game. That is an incredible credit to these exceptional players. My job is to put my words behind them, tell them the truth, that's what I need to continue."

Guardiola did, however, hit out at the suggestion City had been fortunate with COVID-19, something which Liverpool's Virgil van Dijk and Chelsea boss Thomas Tuchel both claimed.

"It's a situation that's all around the world. We've had injuries, COVID," said Guardiola, who was one of 21 members of City's squad to miss last week's FA Cup win over Swindon Town after testing positive.

"We had a lot of people with COVID. At the beginning of the season we've had a lot of incredibly tough injuries for our players. They believe we were lucky - okay, we were lucky. The thing is the pandemic is all around the world, we are exposed to the virus, we are not the exception.

"If they believe this is the reason why... maybe. Sometimes it's the money we have, sometimes it's COVID."

Saturday's game is just the second between City and Chelsea in the Premier League in which they are the top two teams. The other such match finished 1-1 in 2015.

After beating Liverpool 4-0 in July 2020, and Chelsea 1-0 earlier this season, City are looking to become the fourth English club to win three consecutive meetings with reigning European champions in all competitions, after Notts County (1982), Tottenham Hotspur (1983-84) and Everton (1984-85).

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.

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 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."

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."

Manchester City picked up from where they left off in 2021 by battling to a late 2-1 win over Arsenal, extending their lead at the Premier League summit.

A Riyad Mahrez penalty and a last-gasp strike from Rodri cancelled out Bukayo Saka's first-half opener after Gabriel Magalhaes received a needless red card for the Gunners in an action-packed game – the first top-flight match of 2022.

City's 11th league win in a row means they end New Year's Day with an 11-point advantage at the top, a tally bettered by only two clubs in the competition's history on January 1 – Manchester United in 1993-94 and City themselves in 2017-18 (both 12 points).

There were also victories for Tottenham and West Ham, the London pair seeing off Watford and Crystal Palace respectively to remain in firm contention for a top-four finish.

Here, Stats Perform unpacks the pick of Opta data from Saturday's action. 

Arsenal 1-2 Manchester City: Leaders recover to stretch winning run against Gunners

Saka's opening goal against City was only the second the Citizens have conceded in the first half of a Premier League game this season, and the first such goal they have shipped on their travels since May.

That was the England international's sixth league goal of the season and was the 36th goal scored by a player aged 21 or under for Arsenal in the English top flight since Mikel Arteta's first game on Boxing Day 2019 – eight more than any other team.

Mahrez converted a contentiously awarded penalty shortly before the hour mark at Emirates Stadium, the Algeria international scoring for a fifth game running in all competitions, and Gabriel's second yellow card – 78 seconds after his first – swung the game in City's favour.

That was Arsenal's 100th red card in the Premier League era, making them the first side to reach that milestone, with Everton (99), Newcastle United (90) and Chelsea (82) next on the list.

Rodri completed the turnaround with City's latest winning goal in a league game since May 2018 (92:28) as the Citizens made it 10 successive top-flight victories over the Gunners, an opponent Pep Guardiola has yet to lose against in the league in 12 encounters.

Watford 0-1 Tottenham: Sanchez stings Hornets in late Spurs win

Tottenham also left it late to overcome Watford and make it eight Premier League games without defeat under Antonio Conte, extending the longest unbeaten start by a Spurs boss in league competition.

Davinson Sanchez made the breakthrough with 95 minutes and 45 seconds played, with that the latest winning goal Spurs have scored in the top flight since Opta started recording such data from 2006-07.

Watford dug deep but could not quite hold on for a valuable point, meaning they have now lost more Premier League matches (nine) since Claudio Ranieri took charge in October than any other side in the division.

Sanchez's goal was his second in five Premier League matches for Spurs, which is more than he had netted in his first 108 in the competition (one), with the defender heading in from a Son Heung-min free-kick.

Watford boss Ranieri has now lost each of his last five Premier League games against Italian managers, whereas compatriot Conte has never lost against a fellow Italian in the competition in six meetings, winning all but one of those.

Crystal Palace 2-3 West Ham: Hammers survive Olise-inspired scare

Palace fell just short of pulling off a remarkable comeback as they lost a home league match on New Year's Day for the first time in their history, with this their 14th such match.

Michail Antonio's close-range finish and a Manuel Lanzini double gave West Ham a commanding three-goal lead, the latter having now scored 52 per cent of his 25 Premier League goals in London derbies (13) – the highest percentage of any player to have scored at least 20 times in the competition.

Michael Olise made a huge difference from the bench by setting up Odsonne Edouard and then scoring a second for Palace late on, making him the first Eagles player to score and assist as a substitute in the Premier League.

But the visitors held on to ensure boss David Moyes made it six straight away league wins against Palace as a manager, defeating a different coach on each occasion during that perfect run (Alan Smith, Iain Dowie, Tony Pulis, Sam Allardyce, Roy Hodgson and now Patrick Vieira).

Rodri says Manchester City demonstrated their "champions' personality" as they snatched a dramatic 2-1 victory over 10-man Arsenal.

The Premier League leaders left it at the Emirates, the Spain international striking in the third minute of stoppage time to send Pep Guardiola's side 11 points clear at the summit of the table.

The contest had appeared to be heading for a stalemate after Riyad Mahrez equalised from the penalty spot to cancel out Bukayo Saka's first-half effort.

Despite dominating possession (70.9 per cent), City were far from their best, registering just two shots on target from 15 attempts. 

Nevertheless, Rodri believes he and his team-mates reaped the rewards for their persistence, while he also paid tribute to Arsenal's display in the absence of boss Mikel Arteta following his positive COVID-19 test.

"This kind of game, you always have two or three in a season," he told BT Sport.

"They're an unbelievable team; they show why they're in that position. The way they grow with Mikel is huge, massive.

"They did a good game but fortunately, we saw our champions' personality. I've learned from previous years you have to push always, no matter what happens. 

"We were 1-0 down in the break. Suddenly, things change. We didn't do a great game, but we pushed; never dropped, and always thought it was possible."

Arsenal were on a five-match winning streak at the Emirates, keeping a clean sheet in each of their four most recent outings on home soil.

The Gunners were unlucky not to quickly retake the lead after Mahrez's equaliser, with Nathan Ake just about clearing off the line following a mix-up between Aymeric Laporte and Ederson, before Gabriel Magalhaes was given his marching orders for a second bookable offence.

And City boss Guardiola acknowledged that those fine margins proved crucial for his side, who he felt lacked energy during their third match in the space of six days.

"They [Arsenal] were better," he said. "We faced a team who have struggled to be in top four and start the season at the bottom. Now, they are in the top four. 

"They had six or seven days since their last game at Norwich; we had three days since Brentford. 

"We didn't have energy. In the second half, one minute changed with the penalty, one minute the [near] own goal and the sending off. 

"Sometimes, the coin falls on your side, sometimes the other side. We know how much it means to win at the Emirates at the moment and the good team they are."

Pep Guardiola believes Arsenal will be missing their "most important player" on Saturday in the forced absence of head coach Mikel Arteta, who he believes has the Gunners in the best shape since even before Arsene Wenger retired.

Club great Wenger left Arsenal in 2018 after 22 years in charge, during which time he presided over some glorious times but then also saw the club fall behind the Premier League's leading lights towards the end.

Unai Emery replaced Wenger but only lasted 18 months before eventually seeing fellow Basque coach Arteta succeed him, the former Arsenal captain leaving his role as Guardiola's assistant at City in order to take up the job.

Arteta's win percentage (55.1 per cent) may be no better than Emery's (55.1 per cent) but he recently celebrated his two-year anniversary in charge and the club appear on course for a largely positive season after an early wobble.

Saturday's visit of Premier League leaders City comes three days after Arteta tested positive for coronavirus, however.

Guardiola believes it could be a massive blow for the Gunners.

"I would say Mikel maybe is the most important player they have," the City boss told reporters. "I know his charisma, his ideas and especially the personality to do what he believes to do for the best, for the team or for the best for the club.

"So, no doubt about that. The most important thing we want is for him to stay well, that the symptoms are low as everything is under control and recovering after the protocols, and come back soon.

"And then the place that you love is on the touchline, in the training sessions, but I know exactly which Arsenal is going to play, with Mikel or without Mikel."

Arsenal are averaging exactly two goals per game this season, the best they have recorded since Wenger left, while their 1.6 expected goals (xG) is also a high over that period.

It was initially thought Arteta would attempt to implement a Guardiola-inspired possession-based system at the club, though their average passing figures have decreased from 523.7 each game in Emery's only full campaign to 476.3 this season, with Arsenal more willing to relinquish the ball and spring fast breaks.

While their 15 fast breaks may only rank as the eighth-highest in the Premier League this season, their frequency has more than doubled to 0.65 such occasions per game from 0.32 in each of the past two campaigns under Arteta, highlighting a shift in mentality.

Arsenal's record against City is dreadful as they have lost each of their past nine league meetings with them – including the 5-0 hammering suffered in August – making it the club's longest ever losing run against a single opponent.

Yet Arteta has overseen a five-match winning streak as well as a run of five successive home league victories, keeping a clean sheet in last four – not since 1999 have they won five in a row at home without conceding in the top flight.

As such, Arsenal are up to fourth with a four-point cushion over West Ham and Manchester United, leaving Guardiola under no illusion as to the level Arsenal are currently playing at.

Asked if Arsenal are at their best since Arteta took over, Guardiola replied: "Absolutely, but not just since Mikel took over as manager. I think it is the best Arsenal for the last four or five years.

"So, it's no secret they are now top four. The energy they are playing with the good ideas that Mikel has, and the end result is that this is an example that to sell something, you need time.

"I had the feeling, not just the club, or the team, it is obvious that he has changed the club. I'm pretty sure he felt for many things that when he started at Arsenal, maybe it wasn't good and he took it step by step.

"Maybe right now we are going to face one of the one or two best teams in the Premier League right now, in the best form with incredible young players that are dynamic.

"They are playing with the same back four which is stable and the physicality they have, the pace they have, the quality means there are more spaces. So it will be a real, real tough game.

"So, as I said, since I arrived here this is the best Arsenal I've ever seen, and it is already six seasons [since he moved to England]."

Pep Guardiola says he has never doubted Phil Foden's quality on the field after the youngster marked his return to the Manchester City side with the only goal against Brentford.

Foden finished superbly from a Kevin De Bruyne cross to score his fifth Premier League goal of the campaign and fire City to a 1-0 victory in Wednesday's clash in west London.

The 21-year-old, along with Jack Grealish, had been left out of City's line-up for their previous two matches after being warned about his off-the-field behaviour by Guardiola. 

That came after the pair were pictured in a nightclub mingling with others without wearing a mask a day before taking part in a recovery training session.

But Foden was back in Guardiola's good books thanks to his match-winning moment at the Brentford Community Stadium, with that goal taking City eight points clear at the top.

"Exceptional," Guardiola told Amazon Prime when asked about the performances of Foden and De Bruyne in attack. 

"With Foden, he's already a football player. We never had any doubts about his quality. We knew it. Since he came to play with us, always he's been exceptional."

Foden was fielded in a false nine position he is now becoming accustomed to and scored from one of his two attempts against Brentford, the goal allowed to stand after a VAR check for a possible offside.

At 21 years and 215 days, Foden became the second-youngest City player to score 20 Premier League goals after team-mate Gabriel Jesus (21y, 40d).

Five of those strikes have come in 921 minutes of action this season – the equivalent of just over 10 entire games – each from his left foot.

Asked about his preferred position in the side, Foden said: "Wherever the manager puts me, I will do my best for the team. I started on the left. It is good, I am adaptable.

"I've have a few goals this year that have been ruled offside so I wasn't too confident about this one. I thought I went a bit too early, but thank god the goal counted. 

"I am really happy. There were a few when I went a bit early and was offside. We could have won by more. We kept working hard."

City were not at their best but did enough to take advantage of Liverpool's defeat at Leicester City on Tuesday and Chelsea's home draw with Brighton and Hove Albion elsewhere on Wednesday.

All five previous sides to be eight points ahead at the start of a new calendar year have gone on to win the Premier League title, including City themselves in 2017-18.

Despite having racked up 10 wins on the spin for the fourth time under Guardiola, he is taking nothing for granted.

"There are 54 points left to play," he said. "So when you put it in this perspective eight points is ridiculous.

"But we've won ten games in a row and this is one of our targets. We don't have much time and on January 1 we play Arsenal, who are one the best teams right now on form."

Pep Guardiola says he has never doubted Phil Foden's quality on the field after the youngster marked his return to the Manchester City side with the only goal against Brentford.

Foden finished superbly from a Kevin De Bruyne cross to score his fifth Premier League goal of the campaign and fire City to a 1-0 victory in Wednesday's clash in west London.

The 21-year-old, along with Jack Grealish, had been left out of City's line-up for their previous two matches after being warned about his off-the-field behaviour by Guardiola. 

That came after the pair were pictured in a nightclub mingling with others without wearing a mask a day before taking part in a recovery training session.

But Foden was back in Guardiola's good books thanks to his match-winning moment at the Brentford Community Stadium, with that goal taking City eight points clear at the top.

"Exceptional," Guardiola told Amazon Prime when asked about the performances of Foden and De Bruyne in attack. 

"With Foden, he's already a football player. We never had any doubts about his quality. We knew it. Since he came to play with us, always he's been exceptional."

Foden was fielded in a false nine position he is now becoming accustomed to and scored from one of his two attempts against Brentford, the goal allowed to stand after a VAR check for a possible offside.

At 21 years and 215 days, Foden became the second-youngest City player to score 20 Premier League goals after team-mate Gabriel Jesus (21y, 40d).

Five of those strikes have come in 921 minutes of action this season – the equivalent of just over 10 entire games – each from his left foot.

Asked about his preferred position in the side, Foden said: "Wherever the manager puts me, I will do my best for the team. I started on the left. It is good, I am adaptable.

"I've have a few goals this year that have been ruled offside so I wasn't too confident about this one. I thought I went a bit too early, but thank god the goal counted. 

"I am really happy. There were a few when I went a bit early and was offside. We could have won by more. We kept working hard."

City were not at their best but did enough to take advantage of Liverpool's defeat at Leicester City on Tuesday and Chelsea's home draw with Brighton and Hove Albion elsewhere on Wednesday.

All five previous sides to be eight points ahead at the start of a new calendar year have gone on to win the Premier League title, including City themselves in 2017-18.

Despite having racked up 10 wins on the spin for the fourth time under Guardiola, he is taking nothing for granted.

"There are 54 points left to play," he said. "So when you put it in this perspective eight points is ridiculous.

"But we've won ten games in a row and this is one of our targets. We don't have much time and on January 1 we play Arsenal, who are one the best teams right now on form."

Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola believes Kevin De Bruyne is only going to improve following his impressive recent goalscoring form.

The midfield maestro heads into Wednesday's showdown with Brentford having found the net three times in City's past three Premier League outings.

That included a brace in the 7-0 rout of Leeds United on December 14, with no player on target more often in the English top flight since then.

De Bruyne, who also scored the opener in the Premier League leaders' entertaining 6-3 win over Leicester City on December 26, has been a revelation since arriving at the Etihad Stadium in August 2015.

Indeed, no player has registered more assists (77) or created more chances (572) than the Belgium international over the past six years.

Guardiola says the recent surge in De Bruyne's performances has been evident following a difficult spell earlier this season.

"He is getting better, by far," the Man City boss said. "He has something unique in the world. We know that he is an exceptional player. 

"He struggled in the beginning of the season, and now is much, much better. 

"The game against Leeds was really good, and [against Leicester] he played a really, really good home game. 

"He is a fighter and a guy who creates goals and assists. We know it."

Full of momentum, City travel to the Brentford Community Stadium seeking a 10th successive league victory.

Nevertheless, Guardiola insists his side cannot take anything for granted against the promoted Bees, who have already beaten Arsenal, drawn with Liverpool and given Chelsea a scare during their maiden Premier League campaign.

"They made an incredible start of the season. They are doing really well," he added.

"I saw the game against Chelsea; they lost, but they were incredible. They drew against Liverpool, they beat Arsenal. [They are a] top team."

Barcelona on Tuesday confirmed they have reached an agreement to sign Ferran Torres from Manchester City for a reported fee of €65million.

The Spain international returns to LaLiga following an 18-month spell in the Premier League and has signed a deal until June 2027.

Barca are said to be paying an initial €55m (£46.7m) and as much as €10m (£8.5m) in add-ons.

The Catalan giants revealed a €1billion release clause has been inserted in Torres' contract and he will be officially unveiled at Camp Nou on January 3.

City initially spent roughly €23m (£20m) to sign Torres from Valencia in 2020, meaning they have more than doubled their money on a player who has never truly been considered a first-choice starter.

Barca had been linked with Torres in pre-season but their crippling financial state meant transfer outlays were implausible.

The club's debts have topped €1.4billion this year and as a result of their financial performance, they saw their LaLiga salary cap slashed by €280m to just €97m, hence their inability to retain Lionel Messi.

That saw Barca slip from having the second-highest wage limit last season to seventh in 2021-22.

 

Speculation ahead of Torres' signing led to many pondering how Barca can suddenly afford such a significant transfer fee so soon, but reports indicate they recently took out a significant loan to ensure they can.

Torres' arrival means new coach Xavi has the type of young, dynamic attacker he had been after, with the 21-year-old capable of playing through the middle and out on the right, where he was most-frequently used at Valencia.

Since Xavi's return to Barca as head coach, he has spoken regularly about a desire to play with classic wingers, while his reluctance to use Luuk de Jong as the focal point of their attack has suggested a preference for a quick and energetic central striker – Torres fits the bill on both counts.

Yet he leaves City as something of an enigma, having only made 15 Premier League starts in 2020-21, and this season Torres has managed just four appearances in the top flight due to a foot injury he sustained on international duty in October.

As much as it feels he has left City before the Premier League truly got to know him, in his limited time Torres has made an impact on the pitch for City.

Among City players to feature for at least 1,000 minutes across all competitions since the start of last season, Torres' 0.55 goals per 90 minutes is the highest and none of his strikes have been from the penalty spot.

 

His average of 2.8 shots (per 90) is third only to Kevin De Bruyne (3.3) and Riyad Mahrez (3.2), and his expected goals on a per-90-minute basis of 0.44 is bettered by just Raheem Sterling (0.47), showing that Torres' high goals frequency comes from being a consistent threat.

Torres' 1.1 chances created on average is well down the list at City, however. While this may partly reflect the fact he has featured as a central striker often, perhaps greater productivity in this area would have seen City put up more of a fight to keep him.

Nevertheless, the signing represents something of a coup for a Barcelona that just a few months ago was incapable of paying for players of such a calibre.

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