Pep Guardiola

Pep Guardiola praises Aymeric Laporte
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Guardiola praises Laporte as ‘the best left central defender in the world’

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Manchester City kept its first clean sheet of 2020 on Tuesday, posting a 1-0 win over Sheffield United at Bramall Lane.

It took the two-time reigning Premier League champions six tries to get there, the previous zero coming against this same Blades side at the Etihad Stadium.

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City manager Pep Guardiola was quick to give credit to a returning hero, as center back Aymeric Laporte returned to the fold for the first time since Aug. 31.

The club was 3W-1D at that point. They went 12W-2D-5L without him.

Here’s Guardiola, from the Manchester Evening News:

“It’s incredible,” Guardola said. “We have missed him a lot, he’s the best left central defender in the world. Imagine the best teams in the world lose their best central defender. We miss him a lot because he’s a specialist left foot where our buildup. He is fast, strong in the air.”

“He has something that we don’t have in the squad. His left foot and many actions to build up to make it quicker and better – we don’t have it, not because the other ones are not good but he has the only left foot as a central defender and for the way we want to play that is so important. His character and mentality and winning, he has all the attributes. For me, when he is fit he is the best left central defender in the world.”

If you read that as a little bit of an explanation for City being 13 points off Liverpool, you’ve similar eyes to us.

Pep is asking how Liverpool would look without Virgil Van Dijk, how Real Madrid appears when Sergio Ramos is out.

It’s not the be-all, end-all, but as I wrote when Laporte went down, this is the key piece to their defending efforts as well as where they begin possession.

We’re also grateful that Guardiola didn’t drop some sort of, “He’s like a January transfer addition,” statement (at least as far as we’ve read.

Super sub Aguero saves Man City at Sheffield United

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Chris Wilder almost orchestrated another beautiful point Sheffield United, only to see Kevin De Bruyne and Sergio Aguero combine to produce a 1-0 win for Manchester City at Bramall Lane on Tuesday.

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City moves 13 points back of Liverpool, who have two matches-in-hand, while the host Blades are seventh with 33 points.

Man City out-attempted the Blades by an 18-4 margin, produced three big chances to United’s one.


Three things we learned

1. Aguero rescues win and improves Golden Boot credentials: The Argentine might turn 32 in June, but is showing no signs of slowing down. Sure his run and back post tap-in weren’t the most scintillating of his goals, but he’s onto 16 league goals. That’s one shy of Jamie Vardy‘s league lead, and right now you’d bet on him to snare a second Premier League Golden Boot.

2. Henderson aided by VAR: Gabriel Jesus‘ penalty was abject, but it certainly helped Dean Henderson that he was off his line early in the run-up to save. Video Assistant Referee somehow missed the offense, or there’s an explanation beyond our understanding. Pep Guardiola sure is livid.

3. De Bruyne continues record pursuit: Man City’s playmaker assisted Aguero’s goal was a terrific cross to give him 15 league assists this season. He needs six in the final 14 league outings of the season to break Thierry Henry’s Premier League record of 20.

Man of the Match: We’ll give it to Aymeric Laporte, whose fifth appearance of the league season was his first since Aug. 31. The long injury absence stung City deeply; With Laporte on the pitch, City improves to 4W-1D with three clean sheets.


Fernandinho cut out an early Blades challenge, and the next notable moment came as Muhamed Besic bladed the newly-returned Aymeric Laporte to only a yellow card.

Raheem Sterling stole a ball off Chris Basham and led a charge that led to a fine Dean Henderson save in the 20th.

Riyad Mahrez won a straight-forward penalty when Basham chopped him down in the 35th minute, Henderson bailing him out with a save on Gabriel Jesus’ tepid attempt.

Henderson was off his line, but VAR did not have a look.

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Jesus nodded a shot to Henderson in the 62nd, the Blades’ Lys Mousset then nearly backheeling an opener on the ensuing bit of possession.

Aguero was given a rest to start the game, but Guardiola plugged him into the match and got an equalizer when John Egan couldn’t reach a terrific De Bruyne cross.

Guardiola praises Liverpool; injury update

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With the Premier League games coming thick and fast as midweek action now takes center stage, Premier League managers have been giving us injury updates on Monday and Pep Guardiola has praised Liverpool.

Pep Guardiola has doffed his cap to Jurgen Klopp and Liverpool once again, as the Reds have now moved 16 points clear of second-place Man City and have a game in hand on the reigning Premier League champions.

“We can’t deny Liverpool are extraordinary,” Guardiola said. “But everyday I live thinking about what we can do better. Some games are good, we concede few. We have scored more than Liverpool. I don’t have stats here but we concede more chances and drop points.”

In short from Pep: Damn, we should have signed more, and better, defenders this summer. Oh, and the injury to Aymeric Laporte was unlucky.

Guardiola has confirmed that Laporte is close to a return to fitness after the silky French center back missed the last four months with a knee injury. He also confirmed that both John Stones and Benjamin Mendy are doubtful for the trip to Sheffield United on Wednesday (Watch live, 2:30 p.m. ET online via NBCSports.com).

That starts our quick round up of injury news around the Premier League ahead of the midweek games…

  • Chelsea boss Frank Lampard said that Reece James has avoided a serious knee injury after coming off against Newcastle. He could play against Arsenal (Watch live, 3:15 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) and Marcos Alonso is also back in the squad. 
  • Mikel Arteta said that Sokratis will not play at Chelsea due to illness, while Sead Kolasinac and Reiss Nelson will both be out until early February.
  • Carlo Ancelotti confirmed that star Brazilian attacker Richarlison will miss their clash against Newcastle United on Tuesday (Watch live, 2:30 p.m. ET online via NBCSports.com) as he continues to recover from a knee injury. 
  • Newcastle’s injury woes continue as both Jetro Willems and Paul Dummett have been ruled out for the rest of the season. Willems has ruptured his ACL after falling awkwardly in the 1-0 win against Chelsea. The Magpies will have to do some business in January to patch up their squad.
  • Southampton look set to be without Jan Bednarek for their trip to Crystal Palace on Tuesday (Watch live, 2:30 p.m. ET online via NBCSports.com). The Polish center back, who has started every single PL game this season, has an Achilles injury. Palace welcome back Max Meyer as he’s recovered from an ankle injury caused by Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang‘s lunging tackle.
  • Bournemouth could have Lloyd Kelly back after his lengthy injury, as the Cherries take on South Coast rivals Brighton in a massive game at the bottom of the table.

Setien rekindles Barcelona’s passing style in first game

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BARCELONA, Spain — Coach Quique Setién only needed one match to leave his mark on Barcelona.

Barcelona set season highs for ball possession and passes in a 1-0 win over Granada on Sunday, Setién’s first match since replacing Ernesto Valverde six days earlier.

The defending champion’s level of 82% ball possession came close to reaching the all-time Spanish league record of 84% established by Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona in 2011, according to the club. The team’s 1,005 attempted passes smashed its previous season high of 788 passes against Real Betis.

One thing, however, remained the same after the coaching switch: Barcelona turned to Lionel Messi to find the winning goal. The club’s all-time leading scorer scored in the 76th minute after Granada had lost a defender for picking up a second yellow card for fouling Messi.

“You feel much better having Messi because he has been deciding these types of matches for more than a decade,” Setién said.

Setién, a former Atlético Madrid player and coach of several Spanish clubs, is a declared admirer of Barcelona’s passing style established by late Johan Cruyff.

The 61-year-old Spaniard divided fans at his previous two jobs with Las Palmas and Real Betis. He started well at both with supporters enjoying his insistence on imitating Barcelona’s style. But many fans then grew tired of seeing his teams dominate the ball while scoring few goals and proving brittle on defense.

Now with Messi and his talented teammates under his command, Setién’s has passed the first test at Camp Nou. His new side only conceded one shot on goal that, fortunately for Setién, hit the post minutes before Messi decided the game.

Setién did not touch Barcelona’s 4-3-3 formation or make any big changes in his first starting 11 compared to Valverde. Ansu Fati, the teenager who was discovered by Valverde, started for the injured Luis Suárez. Arturo Vidal, a key player for Valverde, took the place of the suspended Frenkie de Jong. Despite his reputation of not being a great passer, Vidal set up Messi’s goal with back-heel pass.

Setién insisted on the importance of his players pressing quickly to recover the ball after losing it. They responded and worked several incredibly long possessions, especially in the first half, that ended in attractive chances in the box.

“The fact that we made so many passes? The only thing I need is to have control,” he said. “We we had talked about being brave and going forward to recover the ball in their territory and that helped us to created danger after recovering the ball.”

Setién’s second-half substitution of Riqui Puig for Ivan Rakitic definitely bore his seal.

The 20-year-old Puig had earned his debut in 2018 from Valverde, but at the start of this season Valverde sent him back to the reserve team. Setién’s first move was to call Puig back up to train with the first squad.

Puig proved key to the victory when he stole the ball near Granada’s area. That led to the attack finished by Messi.

“(Puig) was very good,” Setién said. “He showed patience and he read the match well.”

TWO-TEAM RACE?

While Barcelona and Real Madrid won, most of their potential challengers lost ground just past the midpoint of the season.

Fourth-place Sevilla fell 2-1 at Madrid; sixth-place Real Sociedad lost 3-0 at Real Betis; Valencia fell into seventh place after being shocked 4-1 at lowly Mallorca this round.

Atlético Madrid, which finished the past two seasons as runners-up to champion Barcelona, had one of its poorest performances of the campaign in a 2-0 loss at Eibar. The defeat came following a loss in the Spanish Super Cup final in a penalty shootout to Madrid. Before the pair of losses, it had won three in a row in the league and had beaten Barcelona in the Super Cup semifinals- Valverde’s last match.

The defeat at Eibar left it eight points adrift in third place behind Barcelona and Madrid. Barcelona leads Madrid on goal difference.

ESPANYOL’S HOPE

Last-place Espanyol’s chances of staying in the topflight have been revived by a new coach and a new striker.

Espanyol has taken four points from the two league matches manager with Abelardo Fernández in charge. It drew with Barcelona 2-2 two weeks ago and won 2-1 at Villarreal on Sunday for its first win since Oct. 27.

Shopping for a scorer in the winter transfer market, Espanyol reportedly paid Benfica a club-record 20 million euros ($22 million) for Raúl de Tomás, who had joined Benfica during the summer.

De Tomás has made an immediate impact, scoring in his debut against a third-tier team in the Copa del Rey before taking the winner at Villarreal.

“We have been working on boosting our morale for the past two weeks, on recovering our self-confidence,” Abelardo said. “My players hadn’t forgotten how to play, as they showed (Sunday). You have to live the present instead of thinking about what can happen in two or three weeks. You have to play each match like a final.”

La Liga roundup: Messi scores, wins game in Setien’s Barcelona debut (video)

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Barcelona’s vintage playing style in their 1-0 win over Granada highlights La Liga’s Sunday action.

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Barcelona 1-0 Granda

With a goal from Lionel Messi against an iron-willed Granada, Barcelona are back at the top of La Liga.

The win is the club’s first under Quique Setien, who debuted as the Catalans manager after replacing Ernesto Valverde.

Barcelona rolled back to the years of Pep Guardiola‘s tiki-taka, as they culminated the game with 83 percent possession and completed 1005 passes. That said, Granda – playing  with 10 men from the 69h minute on – were bulletproof until the 76th minute. Messi gently pushed the ball with his weak foot, finishing what had been a series of fluid, build-up passing.

Setien deployed a nuanced 3-4-3 variation – far from Valverde’s 4-3-3 formation that ended up costing him his job after losing to Atletico Madrid in the Super Copa semifinals.

Players like Sergio Busquets were asked about the distinct styles, but he was candidly opposed to comparing the managers and their philosophies.

“We were a solid team. We had control of the ball. They created little against us,” he told Movistar. “It’s true that we struggled when they dropped deep but, in general terms, the team played a good game.

“It’s not about comparing. Every coach has his style and his way of seeing football. You’ll see what Setien asks us to do. We’re not going to reveal it. We’re delighted with what Ernesto did and we’re delighted with Setien.”

With Real Madrid and Atletico right behind, the defending champions have a long way to go this season. They’ll have to build on the win and, more importantly, further deepen their chemistry under the ex-Real Betis boss. Integrating winter signings into the fold might present itself as a challenge, too.

But one thing is certain: Barcelona can still play like they did back in their glory days. If that sticks, a lot can happen.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Mallorca 4-1 Valencia

Real Betis 3-0 Real Sociedad

Villarreal 1-2 Espanyol

Athletic Bilbao 1-1 Celta Vigo