The creation of a European Super League took a step closer to reality on Sunday as 12 leading clubs agreed plans for a new competition.

Six English clubs, three Italian sides and three Spanish teams have joined forces to create a tournament which has long been in the offing, despite significant opposition from UEFA and the respective leagues.

Reigning European champions Bayern Munich and last season's Champions League finalists Paris Saint-Germain are not included, though it is said the competition plans to expand to 15 teams before its inaugural season, which will start "as soon as practicable".

The Premier League's "big six" are the teams to have signed up alongside Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid, Juventus, Milan and their city rivals Inter.

It is an announcement which comes just before UEFA was set to confirm its intentions to alter the format of the Champions League from 2024 onwards. 

UEFA, along with Europe's top five leagues and corresponding football assocations, all strongly emphasised their opposition to the proposal, and vowed to sanction those involved.

Yet a statement released on Sunday read: "Twelve of Europe's leading football clubs have today come together to announce they have agreed to establish a new mid-week competition, the Super League, governed by its Founding Clubs.

"AC Milan, Arsenal FC, Atletico de Madrid, Chelsea FC, FC Barcelona, FC Internazionale Milano, Juventus FC, Liverpool FC, Manchester City, Manchester United, Real Madrid CF and Tottenham Hotspur have all joined as Founding Clubs. It is anticipated that a further three clubs will join ahead of the inaugural season, which is intended to commence as soon as practicable.

"Going forward, the Founding Clubs look forward to holding discussions with UEFA and FIFA to work together in partnership to deliver the best outcomes for the new League and for football as a whole."

The European Club Association (ECA) has joined UEFA in condemning proposals for a new European Super League.

Widespread reports emerged on Sunday of an agreement in place between 12 European clubs to form a breakaway competition.

Real Madrid, Barcelona, Atletico Madrid, Juventus, Inter, Milan, Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool, Tottenham, Chelsea and Arsenal are the clubs involved, although confirmation is still pending.

Reigning European champions Bayern Munich, along with last season's Champions League finalists Paris Saint-Germain, were not included.

UEFA, Europe's top leagues and football associations confirmed their opposition to the proposal, which drew a mass of criticism from pundits and fans alike.

With UEFA set to announce changes to the format of the Champions League from 2024 onwards on Monday, the ECA reiterated its commitment to those proposed alterations, and insisted it would stand against a Super League.

An emergency meeting of the ECA was held on Sunday. According to reports, none of the 12 teams making up the proposed breakaway competition responded to invitations to attend, though PSG and Bayern were represented. 

"In light of today's reports on the subject of a so-called breakaway league, the ECA as the body representing 246 leading clubs across Europe, reiterates its stated commitment to working on developing the UEFA Club Competitions (UCCs) model with UEFA for the cycle beginning 2024 and that a 'closed super league model' to which media articles refer would be strongly opposed by the ECA," a statement read.

The ECA statement went on to outline the body's intention to "work with UEFA on a renewed structure for European Club Football as a whole post 2024", before concluding that "the ECA Executive Board will be convening over the coming days to take appropriate decisions in light of any further developments".

Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal should be relegated from the Premier League if they announce their intention to join a European Super League, Gary Neville has claimed.

UEFA was joined by the top five European Leagues and the English Football Association in opposing the plans, which are reportedly set to be announced on Sunday.

The Premier League's "big six" teams, plus Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid, Barcelona, Inter, Milan and Juventus are the 12 sides said to be involved. Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain are not included.

During United's win over Burnley on Sunday, Neville suggested points deductions would be a reasonable punishment and, after the match, the Sky Sports pundit expanded on his fury at the proposals, labelling it a "criminal act against football fans."

"The reaction to it is that it's been damned and rightly so. I'm a Manchester United fan and have been for 40 years but I'm disgusted, absolutely disgusted," said the former Red Devils full-back.

"It's an absolute disgrace and we have to wrestle back the power in this country from the clubs at the top of this league and that includes my club.

"I've been calling for 12 months to have an independent regulator to bring checks and balances in place to stop this happening, it's pure greed. They're imposters, the owners of Liverpool, United, City – they're nothing to do with football in this country, a hundred and odd years of history of fans who love their clubs and they need protecting.

"United aren't even in the Champions League, Arsenal aren't, they're a shambles of a club at the moment, Tottenham aren't, and they want a God-given right to be in there? Stop these clubs having a power base, enough is enough.

"The motivation is greed. My reaction earlier wasn't an emotional one, deduct them all points tomorrow, put them at the bottom of the league and take the money off them.

"You've got to stamp on this, it's criminal, it's a criminal act against football fans, make no mistake about it. Deduct points, their money and punish them.

"If they announce a letter of intent has been signed then they should be punished, heavily, massive fines, points deductions, take the titles off them, who cares.

"Give the title to Burnley, let Fulham stay up, relegate United, Liverpool and Arsenal, those three clubs have the history and should be the ones that should suffer most."

Neville also hit out at the owners of the clubs involved, adding: "They're bottle merchants, you never hear from the owners of these clubs, absolute bottle merchants, they've got no voice, and they'll probably hide in a few weeks and say it was nothing to do with them, they were only talking about it.

"Seriously in the midst of a pandemic, a crisis, football clubs at national level going bust nearly, furloughing players, clubs on the edge and these lot are having Zoom calls about breaking away and creating more greed. Joke."

According to reports, a statement is expected at 21:30 GMT. It has been reported that Madrid president Florentino Perez will act as the competition's chairman, with Liverpool, United and Arsenal owners John W Henry, Joel Glazer and Stan Kroenke also having major roles.

"They'll be amending that statement as we speak, they'll have seen the reaction," Neville said. "They'll be backtracking down the road because they are bottle merchants these lot. 

"I'd like to think that United and Liverpool would stand and think something's not right here, let's collaborate with the game to try and get a better competition, a better Champions League, I'm not for everything standing still but this is a grab, when the timing is hideous. What world are these people living in?"

Put on the spot at full-time, United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was unable to offer any insight, telling Sky Sports: "I saw the news and the speculation. I can't really say too much, my focus has just been on this game, I got the news today as well.

"I haven't looked into [what it would mean for United] so I just need to sit down and see what it is. The club will probably comment on it later."

Plans for a European Super League are set to be announced on Sunday, drawing the ire of Manchester United greats Gary Neville and Roy Keane.

Reports emerged on Sunday claiming that 12 clubs – including the Premier League's "big six" – are to announce the new competition. 

Real Madrid, Barcelona, Atletico Madrid, Juventus, Milan and Inter are the other sides involved, though the proposal will reportedly include an expansion option to 16 or 18 teams.

UEFA responded strongly, insisting it will do everything in its power to block the plans, including banning the 12 clubs from their competitions, while there has also been a suggestion that players may not be allowed to represent their countries on the international stage. The Premier League also condemned the proposals.

While commentating on United's clash with Burnley, Neville made no secret of his opposition to the idea of a Super League, suggesting point deductions were a worthy punishment.

"I'm not against modernisation of football competitions," Neville said on Sky Sports.

"We have the Premier League, the Champions League, I don't think anyone can deny, but I think to bring forward proposals in the midst of COVID, the economic crisis that exists for all clubs is an absolute scandal.

"United and the rest of the big six clubs that have signed up against the rest of the Premier League should be ashamed of themselves.

"I can't concentrate on the game. They should deduct six points from all the teams who have signed up to it. To do it during a season, it's a joke."

It was a sentiment echoed by Neville's former team-mate and fellow Sky Sports pundit Keane, who added: "I think it comes down to money, greed, we've heard nothing from FIFA yet but it doesn't sound good.

"Let's hope its stopped in its tracks, because I think it is just pure greed.

"We're talking about the big clubs. Bayern Munich are one of the biggest clubs in the world. At least they've made a stand, which is a good start."

United, Manchester City, Arsenal, Liverpool, Tottenham and Chelsea would need the permission of the Premier League to join any proposed Super League, or would have to break away from England's top flight altogether. 

The Premier League has strongly condemned the proposals for a new European Super League, which it says will "undermine the appeal of the whole game".

Widespread reports emerged on Sunday claiming that 12 clubs – including the Premier League's "big six" – are set to announce the new competition.

Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool, Tottenham, Chelsea and Arsenal are said to have been joined by teams from Italy and Spain in backing the plans.

In response, UEFA vowed to do everything in its power to block the proposal, and urged others to boycott what it described as a "cynical project founded on the self-interest of a few clubs".

One of the sanctions being considered by European football's governing body is to suspend the 12 teams from UEFA's club competitions.

The Premier League subsequently backed up UEFA's statement, confirming its opposition to the proposal.

A statement issued on the competition's official website read: "The Premier League condemns any proposal that attacks the principles of open competition and sporting merit which are at the heart of the domestic and European football pyramid.

"Fans of any club in England and across Europe can currently dream that their team may climb to the top and play against the best. We believe that the concept of a European Super League would destroy this dream.

"The Premier League is proud to run a competitive and compelling football competition that has made it the most widely watched league in the world. Our success has enabled us to make an unrivalled financial contribution to the domestic football pyramid.

"A European Super League will undermine the appeal of the whole game, and have a deeply damaging impact on the immediate and future prospects of the Premier League and its member clubs, and all those in football who rely on our funding and solidarity to prosper.   

"We will work with fans, The FA, EFL, PFA and LMA, as well as other stakeholders, at home and abroad, to defend the integrity and future prospects of English football in the best interests of the game."

This is not the first time this season that plans have been put forward to change the face of the game.

Late last year, the owners of United and Liverpool proposed a reformatting of the English game, dubbed "Project Big Picture" which, among other items, included handing more power to a select few teams in the top flight.

It was instantly dismissed by other Premier League clubs, with accusations that it was a blatant "power grab" in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic's impact on football.

United and Liverpool's American owners are reported to have been instrumental in the European Super League proposition.

Real Madrid president Florentino Perez is reportedly set to be chairman, with John W. Henry (Liverpool), Joel Glazer (United) and Stan Kroenke (Arsenal) acting as vice-chairmen, alongside Juventus chief Andrea Agnelli.

The creation of a European Super League took a step closer to reality on Sunday as 12 leading clubs agreed plans for a new competition, according to widespread reports.

It is thought that up to six English clubs, three Italian sides and three Spanish teams have joined forces, with an announcement expected this weekend.

No clubs from Germany or France are involved, meaning reigning European champions Bayern Munich and last season's Champions League finalists Paris Saint-Germain are not included, though reports state the plan is for the competition to be expanded to 16-18 teams.

Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool, Tottenham and Arsenal are the Premier League teams said to have signed up, with Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid representing LaLiga.

Juventus, Milan and their city rivals Inter are the Serie A clubs in the fold.

It has also been suggested PSG refused an invitation to the new competition, while one of the counter-threats supposedly put forward by UEFA was said to be the exclusion of the 12 teams from its competitions.

The news of this move by some of Europe's biggest clubs comes just before UEFA is set to confirm its intentions to alter the format of the Champions League.

According to reports in The Daily Mail, the Super League is being financed by United States-based investment bank JP Morgan.

The Mail also claim Madrid president Florentino Perez will likely act as chairman of the competition, with the American owners of Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal – John W Henry, Joel Glazer and Stan Kroenke – acting as vice-chairmen. Juve chief Andrea Agnelli is to act as the fourth vice-chairman.

Raheem Sterling has lost his place in the Manchester City starting line-up prompting fresh speculation.

Phil Foden has taken Sterling's role with devastating effect, including scoring the winner in their midweek Champions League triumph over Borussia Dortmund.

Sterling's contract talks have also been shelved for the season, fuelling the rumours.

 

TOP STORY - REAL REIGNITE RAHEEM INTEREST

Real Madrid have reignited their interest in Manchester City winger Raheem Sterling according to the Daily Star.

Sterling is contracted with City for another two seasons, putting them in a strong position to hang on to the England international with a reported £80million price tag.

But regular football and the lure of Madrid could be compelling for Sterling who joined City from Liverpool in 2015 for £44m.

 

ROUND-UP

-The Daily Star reports that Paul Pogba's agent Mino Raiola has informed Manchester United that he will only re-sign for a mammoth £500,000-a-week contract. Interested clubs Juventus, Real Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain have also been informed of his wage demands.

-Adama Traore will be offloaded by Wolverhampton as they seek to raise funds for their off-season recruitment reports Football Insider.

-Mundo Deportivo claims that Tottenham are keen to sign Real Betis defender Emerson, having shown interest last off-season.

-Manchester United are homing in on 18-year-old Metz midfielder Pape Sarr according to The Sun although they will face plenty of competition.

Thomas Tuchel was proud to have got the better of Pep Guardiola for the first time in his career after leading Chelsea to a 1-0 victory over Manchester City on Saturday.

Hakim Ziyech's goal sent Chelsea into the FA Cup final for the fourth time in five seasons and ended Premier League leaders City's hopes of winning a quadruple this season.

Guardiola was unbeaten in his five prior meetings with Tuchel, all of which came during the Catalan's time in charge of Bayern Munich between 2013 and 2016.

Since taking over Chelsea in January, Tuchel has also come out on top against Jurgen Klopp, Jose Mourinho, Carlo Ancelotti and Diego Simeone.

He was pleased to have got the beating of a manager he considers to be the best in the world but urged his team to quickly put it behind them and focus on their push to finish in the top four of the Premier League.

"If you play against Pep, you know you play against the highest level in Europe because everywhere he was on the sideline he was the benchmark with his teams and he is again. You can see this in the Premier League," Tuchel told a post-match news conference.

"But it was our target to close the gap for the 90 minutes because it's possible in football if you arrive in good momentum you can make this happen.

"I'm happy and proud of the performances because we played with a lot of courage. We were brave with the ball and against the ball.

"We deserved the win, which is most important. We were very active and didn't get passive. We deserved the win against like I said maybe the best manager and clearly one of the best teams, so we are very happy with the performance.

"It'll be a huge boost for our confidence and for our progression and our development because we arrived with a young team. It's important to have these experiences together.

"Most important now is to enjoy it today and from tomorrow it's the past and we need to perform in a crucial week in the Premier League.

"Today the target was to close the gap to Man City for 90 minutes completely. It was a huge target and we were focused on that and delivered very well.

"Now the next big target is to forget this performance and success and enter with full awareness a crucial week in the Premier League."

Chelsea entertain Brighton and Hove Albion on Tuesday before taking on top-four rivals West Ham at London Stadium next Saturday.

Kevin De Bruyne's ankle injury sustained in the FA Cup semi-final loss to Chelsea "doesn't look good", according to Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola.

The Belgium international went off in the 48th minute as City's quadruple hopes were ended by Hakim Ziyech's second-half goal in a 1-0 defeat at Wembley on Saturday.

De Bruyne will undergo tests on Sunday to determine the severity of his injury, with the EFL Cup final against Tottenham coming next weekend and the first leg of their Champions League semi-final against Paris Saint-Germain following three days later.

Asked about De Bruyne's status, Guardiola told a news conference: "He has pain now. Tomorrow they are going to make a test with the doctors. It probably doesn't look too good but tomorrow we will see what he has."

De Bruyne was one of only three City players to retain their place in the starting line-up from the midweek victory over Borussia Dortmund.

Guardiola rejected the suggestion that his widescale rotation signified a lack of respect for the FA Cup.

"We had two days to recover [after Dortmund] and played away and had to travel by train for three hours [to Wembley] and everyone deserves to play, but don't say we don't pay attention," said Guardiola.

"A team that arrives in the final stages of all competitions couldn't say that. This team won four finals in a row in the Carabao Cup, so just say we lost the game and when we lost the game the decision is bad. But it's such a poor argument.

"We wouldn't get to the semi-finals of the FA Cup or the final of the Carabao Cup and semi-finals of the Champions League if we didn't pay attention. This team always plays to win.

"It was a tight game. Congratulations to Chelsea, they're a top side. But if you believe we didn't pay attention, what would happen if we won today with eight changes? Say it before the game, say 'Pep doesn't pay attention' or 'the players don't pay attention'. Don't just say it after because we lost a game.

"These guys in 10 months, 11 months fight every game like I've never seen. We lose a game against a top side and now we don't pay attention or care about this competition? We respect a lot the FA Cup, we play to win."

Meetings with Chelsea have provided Manchester City with a measuring stick over the past 12 months.

In June 2020, at Stamford Bridge, City's 2-1 defeat handed the Premier League title to Liverpool, ending Pep Guardiola's two-season stay at the summit.

When City then returned to the same stadium in January, facing Chelsea for the first time in 2020-21, they rediscovered their mojo.

It was the fourth match in a sequence of 21 straight wins in all competitions and arguably the pick of the bunch.

Slick City, missing a host of stars due to COVID-19, swept Chelsea aside in a 3-1 win as Ilkay Gundogan, Phil Foden and Kevin De Bruyne all scored. They left London in fifth but firmly back on track.

It has since looked as though that might be a defining display in a historic quadruple achievement. City, like Chelsea, reached the Champions League semi-finals this week. They are already clear at the top of the league table and have an EFL Cup final Wembley date with Tottenham next weekend.

But in the FA Cup, the fourth competition, City were tasked with again taking on Chelsea, an entirely different prospect now Thomas Tuchel has replaced Frank Lampard and fortified the Blues.

And Saturday's semi-final saw City finally come unstuck as Chelsea claimed a superb 1-0 success.

 

Blues a different beast

The improvement in Chelsea from January's match to this game was evident even in a first half in which they managed only two legal shots.

All three of City's goals had come in the opening 45 minutes last time, tearing through Lampard's men at will. They were now limited to three first-half efforts of their own worth a combined 0.1 expected goals. Parity suited Tuchel, who could not allow De Bruyne to dictate once more.

At the other end, a portender for City's later downfall appeared in the 'offsides' column, for the Premier League leaders were warned long before Hakim Ziyech's 55th-minute breakthrough.

With just six minutes on the clock, Timo Werner advanced up the left and the flag stayed down. The forward played a low, square ball, which City could not cut out, and Ziyech scored. Then the flag went up. A let off.

When Werner exploited the same space 10 minutes after the interval, set clear by a gorgeous Mason Mount pass, goalkeeper Zack Steffen decided to act.

Seemingly unimpressed by the way with which a usually sturdy City defence had allowed Werner to centre and Ziyech to finish on the first occasion, Steffen advanced and fared no better than his team-mates. The United States international failed to narrow the angle and simply granted Ziyech an open goal when Werner made his pass again.

 

KDB blow for treble bid

Mount moved uneasily as he was replaced 15 minutes later, but the damage was done. City had already lost De Bruyne - who completed only 10 passes in the Chelsea half - to an ankle complaint at the start of the second half. That setback could have implications far beyond this encounter.

Steffen twice saved City, blocking from Ziyech and reaching a tame Werner prod, and De Bruyne's replacement Foden sought to muster up more magic.

Momentum swung but the scoreline did not. Ruben Dias headed over from close range and Raheem Sterling blasted beyond the crossbar.

Although the flag was raised again to deny Chelsea a second in stoppage time - Christian Pulisic, on for Mount, frustrated - the Blues battled, blocked and bellowed their way across the finish line.

Tuchel five times faced Guardiola in Germany and failed to end on the winning side. Boosted by spirit in defence and speed in the form of the much-maligned Werner, he finally found the formula.

The Chelsea coach will get another go at Guardiola in the league on May 8, a third meeting this season hot on the heels of the sides' respective Champions League semis. They will know by then if there is to be a further part to this epic in a European final - hopefully, for City's sake, with De Bruyne back involved in Istanbul.

Should Guardiola's men win that prize, the most precious of all, it could clinch a tremendous treble, but FA Cup glory is not on the agenda this season.

"We never speak about the four titles," the City manager said in midweek. "One game at a time."

The next game ensured nobody outside the club could speak about that clean sweep either - at least for another year.

Hakim Ziyech sent Chelsea into the FA Cup final for the fourth time in five seasons by securing a 1-0 victory over Manchester City, who lost Kevin De Bruyne to injury.

After finishing as runners-up to Arsenal last season, Chelsea have a chance to go one better thanks to Ziyech's 55th-minute strike against the Premier League leaders at Wembley on Saturday.

His goal arrived just seven minutes after De Bruyne went off with an ankle issue – a concern for Pep Guardiola with the EFL Cup final and first leg of City's Champions League semi-final against Paris Saint-Germain to come this month.

Ziyech was unable to beat Zack Steffen and get a second before the hour mark, but one goal was enough for Chelsea to finally beat City at the new Wembley at the fourth attempt.

From the early stages both teams appeared eager to try to exploit the counter-attack, but Chelsea looked the more dangerous in those situations.

Ziyech had a goal chalked off inside six minutes because Timo Werner was offside in the build-up, while Ben Chilwell scuffed a volley wide from a brilliant Reece James cross.

James failed to work Steffen with an effort of his own, meaning Gabriel Jesus' hopeful 20-yard effort that was caught by Kepa Arrizabalaga was the first half's only shot on target.

De Bruyne appeared to get hurt after tangling with N'Golo Kante three minutes after half-time and was replaced by Phil Foden.

Matters deteriorated for City in the 55th minute, when Mason Mount released Werner and he squared for Ziyech to steer the ball into an empty net.

A terrific, raking pass from Chilwell gave Ziyech a chance to double his tally four minutes later but Steffen stayed big to keep him at bay.

Chelsea lost Thiago Silva to a back injury late on but they saw out the victory comfortably, even with Christian Pulisic's stoppage-time strike being correctly chalked off for offside.

 

What does it mean? City's quadruple hopes over

Guardiola has long insisted that winning the Premier League, FA Cup, EFL Cup and Champions League in the same season is not possible.

In a season with increased fixture congestion due to the coronavirus pandemic, it is impressive that City still had a chance to complete the feat in April.

However, Guardiola was beaten by Thomas Tuchel for the first time in their sixth managerial meeting and suffered an FA Cup semi-final defeat for the second straight season.

Ziyech makes the difference

It was at times tough to watch with both teams looking to do damage in transition, but Ziyech was more threatening than anyone when the chance to run in behind arose. He was in the right place to score the winner and on another day could have had a hat-trick.

De Bruyne blow

City remain in the hunt for trophies on three fronts this season but may be set for a period without midfield talisman De Bruyne after he appeared to sustain an ankle injury. He created two chances in just 48 minutes on the pitch and City missed his midfield mastery.

What's next?

Leicester City or Southampton will face Chelsea in the final in May. More immediately, the Blues take on Brighton and Hove Albion in the Premier League on Tuesday, with City travelling to Aston Villa the day after.

Manchester City talisman Kevin De Bruyne was substituted shortly after half-time in Saturday's FA Cup semi-final against Chelsea with an apparent ankle complaint.

De Bruyne, keeping his place from the midweek Champions League win at Borussia Dortmund despite eight City changes, appeared to tweak his ankle in a tussle with N'Golo Kante.

The midfielder was quickly replaced by Phil Foden, the match-winner in Germany, as City take no risks ahead of a key stretch in the season.

Pep Guardiola's side are still chasing silverware on four fronts, bidding to reach the FA Cup final ahead of next week's EFL Cup showpiece against Tottenham.

They are in pole position for the Premier League and into the last four of the Champions League.

Only Thomas Muller (18) has more assists than De Bruyne (16) in all competitions this season among all players in Europe's 'top five' leagues.

He ranks fifth for chances created (101) and has also scored eight times.

Thomas Tuchel hopes Chelsea will benefit from a rare opportunity to bond in Seville after the squad stayed overnight following their Champions League clash with Porto.

Chelsea lost the second leg of the quarter-final tie following a stoppage-time winner for their Portuguese opponents on Tuesday, though still progressed 2-1 on aggregate.

Rather than fly home immediately after the game in the Spanish city – both fixtures were staged there due to the ongoing travel restrictions in place during the coronavirus pandemic – Tuchel and his Chelsea players had the chance to get together and relax.

Chelsea head coach Tuchel allowed his Premier League players to have a glass of wine or a beer as they discussed matters away from football before returning to England the next day, a move he hopes has allowed the group to grow even closer as they prepare for a busy run-in to the season.

Chelsea are still fighting for a top-four finish in the Premier League, but the immediate focus is on an FA Cup semi-final showdown against Manchester City, with the two heavyweight rivals clashing at Wembley on Saturday.

"We are aware that it is necessary to recover mentally," Tuchel told the media on the eve of the City game. 

"For example, we decided to stay overnight in Seville because we knew the hotel. It was very nice, in a nice setting - we had the chance to sit outside because the weather was very warm.

"It was a calming circumstance to enjoy each other's company. We had a good sleep and we had a chance to stay together after the match because we created a bubble there.

"It was a good chance because the players have not been able to go out, go to restaurants. For almost a year now, we cannot share a dressing room. So we created this just to feel some time together, have talks outside of tactics and line-ups to just bond, let the players bond, enjoy an evening after a game.

"They could have a glass of wine or sip of beer if they want. It was important to have this environment and organise it like this. It was part of the mental recovery.

"We are aware that we have many meetings after games and training sessions. We want to have sessions where there isn't too much explanation or talking, just to find exercises on the pitch that bring a lot of fun and joy and sweat out the tension.

"Things like this are very important to help the seriousness of how we prepare and play in games."

Tuchel will hope the time spent in Spain has refreshed Chelsea prior to taking on the runaway league leaders; City have won six of the past nine meetings in all competitions, including a 3-1 triumph at Stamford Bridge earlier in this campaign.

Frank Lampard was in charge for that game and while Tuchel has lost just twice since taking charge, he has yet to beat Pep Guardiola in his managerial career. All of their previous five head-to-head battles came while both were working in the Bundesliga.

Pep Guardiola has suggested Raheem Sterling needs to rediscover his confidence if he is to usurp Phil Foden and Riyad Mahrez from Manchester City's starting XI.

Sterling has been an important performer throughout the Guardiola era at the Etihad Stadium but has started just two of City's past eight games across all competitions.

He was in the XI for all three of England's World Cup qualifiers during the recent international break, scoring in a 5-0 win against San Marino.

Sterling started City's surprise Premier League defeat to Leeds United yet was back on the bench for Wednesday's Champions League quarter-final second leg against Borussia Dortmund, during which both Mahrez and Foden scored to seal a place in the last four.

"He's maybe the second or third player with the most minutes this season," the City boss told a media conference.

"The trust with Raheem is intact. He's only played less because Phil and Riyad are at the top level, scoring goals and being so decisive in the final third.

"The confidence, he has to have it. He has it from all of us, he has to have it because the quality is there. I cannot give the players confidence, he can have it for himself.

"Having confidence from me, for being selected, is completely the opposite. What we have done in these incredible years, with this amount of titles and records that went on, Raheem has been key.

"He was a key player and is a key player. But at this moment Phil is playing really good and Riyad is playing really good. That's the only reason. They know it. They know it and everybody plays a lot of minutes this season.

"Every day, people want to take what happened in the past and future. I could not care less. I don't care. I care about the training sessions, how you were, how you behave, about the body language, your mood, and then tomorrow, semi-final day, that's when you have to talk.

"We have excellent human beings, the relationship in the locker room in bad moments this season was fantastic and in good moments it's fantastic."

Meanwhile, Guardiola confirmed Zack Steffen will start against Chelsea ahead of first-choice goalkeeper Ederson.

The United States international has started all four of City's games in the FA Cup this season and Guardiola acknowledged it would not be fair on the 26-year-old to drop him for the clash with Thomas Tuchel's side.

"He's played really well in the FA Cup," Guardiola explained. "He's an international goalkeeper and when he has played he has played at a good level. He's training well, he deserves it. I am more than delighted to give him this opportunity."

Thomas Tuchel is confident Chelsea can close the gap to a Manchester City side he believes are the "benchmark" in European football alongside Bayern Munich for 90 minutes in Saturday's FA Cup semi-final.

Tuchel has never beaten a side managed by Guardiola during his career, having met the Catalan tactician five times across spells in charge of Mainz and Borussia Dortmund, earning two draws against his opponent's Bayern Munich side.

Both Chelsea and City are through to the semi-finals of the Champions League but, with the Blues 20 points behind Guardiola's men domestically, Tuchel accepts his team are a long way off the standard set by the Premier League leaders.

Asked if, having always been an underdog against him in Germany, Tuchel's Chelsea and Guardiola's City can be considered equals at Wembley, Tuchel told a media conference: "Yes and no. We have to accept there is a gap between us and Manchester City.

"If you look at the fixtures in the Premier League and if you look at the fixtures in the last few years we have to accept this. It's important that we accept it but without making us too small.

"From day one next season we will hunt them and try to close the gap between us. For me, in Europe, there are two teams who are the benchmark: Bayern Munich and Manchester City.

"But I know what you're saying of course, he made it impossible for us to beat them with Mainz, I think we had two draws with Dortmund, one ended in the cup final in a penalty loss and we had another draw at home, so we came close, it's time that we beat them, the next try is tomorrow.

"I don't believe in how big clubs are, are we equal or not? We have to admit that there is a gap but for 90 minutes we are very self-aware and very self-confident that we truly believe we can close the gap for one game, this is the target for tomorrow and I arrive with a team that I'm absolutely happy to arrive, to compete against the benchmark in England and Europe.

"We don't have the momentum of football on our side. If we want to have this we have to play on our top level, to force things and need a bit of luck.

"If we manage to beat them it will be a huge boost if not we will have to accept and take it as a challenge and opportunity to grow because we have some fights coming up. It's not only about the FA Cup, it's about the top-four race and the Champions League."

Tuchel takes joy in competing with Guardiola, identifying him as a significant inspiration in his managerial career.

"[Guardiola is a] huge influence because when he was coach of Barcelona I was watching almost every game," Tuchel explained. 

"I was very impressed by the way they made success happen with the style they were playing with their own academy guys, the offensive way, the ball possession.

"The most impressive thing about this team was their mentality, how they defended when they lost the ball. I learned a lot watching the game and understanding more of the game, how adventurous, how brave you can approach this game.

"So it was a big, big lesson. At this time I was a coach at the academy and then became a coach at Mainz. Almost every match was a lesson in these days and then later we had the opportunity to play against him.

"It was not always a pleasure but when you arrive on a certain level it's of course a pleasure to play against him and to meet him and to fight on the highest level."

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