James Ward-Prowse is the best free-kick taker in the world – Pep Guardiola

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Pep Guardiola believes Manchester City face the best free-kick taker in the world in James Ward-Prowse this weekend.

Yet the City boss believes the Southampton captain is far more than a dead-ball specialist.

Champions City come up against the England midfielder, who enhanced his set-piece reputation with a stunning strike against Wolves last week, as they travel to St Mary’s Stadium in the Premier League on Saturday.

Guardiola said: “He’s the best taker, right now, worldwide. There isn’t a better taker than Ward-Prowse.

“But he’s so good at it that maybe you miss his quality as a football player, and the football player is exceptional as well.

“He is a guy who adapts in midfield positions, a team player who has great quality with or without the ball, and in understanding the game.

“But at free-kicks, set-pieces, corners he is exceptional and people pay most attention to that.”

Guardiola is not only wary of the threat of Ward-Prowse as City head south. The leaders have won their last 12 Premier League matches and have an 11-point lead at the top but Guardiola is taking nothing for granted against a team that have caused him problems before.

Ralph Hasenhuttl’s side claimed a point in a goalless draw at the Etihad Stadium in September. They were also only narrowly beaten by City 1-0 in a hard-fought contest at St Mary’s last term, while they beat Guardiola’s men at home the season before that.

City and Southampton shared a goalless draw in September
City and Southampton shared a goalless draw in September (Zac Goodwin/PA)

Asked what makes Saints so tough to beat, Guardiola said: “The quality they have and the manager is exceptional, one of the best in the league by far.

“Always it was a tough game, the players know it. It’s an incredible challenge and we know it.”

City will not be rushing Riyad Mahrez back into club action following Algeria’s unexpectedly early exit from the Africa Cup of Nations.

Riyad Mahrez (centre) is being given time off following the Africa Cup of Nations
Riyad Mahrez (centre) is being given time off following the Africa Cup of Nations (Themba Hadebe/AP)

The holders failed to fire in Cameroon and are heading home following the end of the group stage but Mahrez, who carries the weight of a lot of his country’s expectations, is to be given time off.

Guardiola said: “He’s on holiday all week. After the African Cup he has permission to have one week off and to come back with the team next week.”

The Premier League itself takes a winter break after the upcoming round of fixtures but, unlike Newcastle, City will not be filling it by travelling abroad for a warm-weather training camp.

It had been suggested they might visit Abu Dhabi, home of their owner Sheikh Mansour.

Guardiola said: “We spoke with the club and it’s not safe enough to go there, all together, right now because of the virus. We’ve decided that everyone can spend time with their families and friends.

“They will have a few days off to rest a little bit. Most of them never have a week off because they go to the national teams.”

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