Manchester City, Pep Guardiola poised to strike in Premier League title race

Manchester City’s English midfielder Jack Grealish is embraced by Manchester City’s Spanish manager Pep Guardiola as he is substituted during the English Premier League football match between Manchester City and Sheffield United at the Etihad Stadium in Manchester, north west England Manchester City appear ominously poised to strike in the Premier League title race as Pep Guardiola welcomes back key players for Saturday’s trip to Newcastle. Seen here: Manchester City’s English midfielder Jack Grealish is embraced by Manchester City’s Spanish manager Pep Guardiola. Picture: Oli Scarff/AFP

Manchester City appear ominously poised to strike in the Premier League title race as Pep Guardiola welcomes back key players for Saturday’s trip to Newcastle, while Manchester United can ill-afford another damaging defeat when Tottenham visit Old Trafford.

City enjoyed a near-perfect festive period as they won the Club World Cup for the first time in Saudi Arabia and then took maximum points from two Premier League games on their return while their rivals stumbled.

The defending champions are five points adrift of leaders Liverpool, but have a game in hand and are nearing a clean bill of health.

Kevin De Bruyne made his return after a five-month injury layoff in a 5-0 thrashing of Huddersfield in the FA Cup last weekend.

Fitting right back in

The Belgian even registered an assist for compatriot Jeremy Doku, who was also back for the first time since early December.

Erling Haaland is also nearing a return from a foot injury that has kept the prolific Norwegian absent for City’s last eight games.

“Kevin, Haaland, Phil (Foden), these guys win games — that’s why they’re so important for us,” said Guardiola as his squad rounds into shape.

After an inconsistent first half of the season, City can take inspiration in the fact they found themselves in a very similar position 12 months ago, only to then go on and win a treble of Champions League, Premier League and FA Cup.

A trip to St James’ Park would normally represent a stiff test of City’s credentials to become the first side to ever win four consecutive top-flight English titles.

However, Newcastle have lost five of their last six Premier League games to tumble down to ninth in the table.

An injury-ravaged first half of the season has taken its toll on the Magpies as fatigue set in during a marathon slog of fixtures in December.

But Eddie Howe has most of his key men back fit and secured a morale-boosting 3-0 derby win over Sunderland in the FA Cup last weekend to stop the rot.

United’s last-chance saloon

Like Newcastle, Manchester United’s hopes of climbing back into top-four contention are hanging by a thread.

Erik ten Hag’s men have lost nine of their opening 20 Premier League games to slip nine points adrift of the Champions League places.

Tottenham will have to cope without captain Son Heung-min who is off leading South Korea’s bid for Asian Cup glory.

But victory for Spurs at Old Trafford would propel them into the top four, at the expense of north London rivals Arsenal, and to within three points of the top of the table.

By contrast, defeat would realistically spell the end of United’s top-four ambitions and pile more scrutiny onto Ten Hag’s position just as British billionaire Jim Ratcliffe takes control of the club’s sporting operations.

Ratcliffe is expected to be in attendance to see the state of his new investment up close after securing a deal worth $1.3 billion for a 25 percent stake of the club.

Can Villa go joint-top?

The Premier League’s winter break means there are only five fixtures for the next two weekends to allow every club a two-week rest from league action.

Liverpool are one of the sides not playing this weekend, meaning Aston Villa can go level on points at the top of the table should they win at Everton.

But the Toffees are just as desperate for the points.

Should Luton win at Burnley on Friday, Sean Dyche’s men will slip into the relegation zone due in large part to a 10-point deduction for breaching financial rules.

Everton will at least have Dominic Calvert-Lewin available after his three-game suspension for a controversial red card against Crystal Palace in the FA Cup last week was rescinded.

Fixtures (all times SA time)

Friday

Burnley v Luton (9.45pm)

Saturday

Chelsea v Fulham (2.30pm), Newcastle v Manchester City (7.30pm)

Sunday

Everton v Aston Villa (2.30pm), Manchester United v Tottenham (6.30pm)

AFP

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