MANCHESTER: Pep Guardiola believes Manchester City's central defensive pairing of John Stones and Aymeric Laporte could dominate Premier League forwards for years to come.
Laporte, 24, has been one of the revelations of City's unbeaten start to the league campaign, playing in every minute going into Sunday's clash with Southampton.
In recent weeks he has forged an effective partnership with England international Stones, also 24, with City's defence conceding just three goals in their opening 10 matches -- the division's best record.
When City's two League Cup games and the Community Shield are added into the equation, Guardiola's side have conceded three times in 13 domestic games this season.
In Premier League history, only Jose Mourinho's Chelsea side of 2004-05 had conceded fewer goals by this stage of the season -- two -- and their eventual goals-against tally of 15 in that season represents the best-ever defensive mark.
Guardiola believes that with veterans Vincent Kompany and Nicolas Otamendi offering cover and competition for places, the Stokes-Laporte pairing will be a force for a long time.
"That is the idea of the club, the club is maintaining these two guys with us for the long-term," said Guardiola. "But still we trust a lot with Vincent and Nico and they have to know they have to fight each other.
"We cannot sustain a long season just with both of them, it's impossible. We can count on injuries, and now I'm really glad Laporte is at a good level but maybe (his form will) go down."
- Strength in depth -
Guardiola said competition for places is vital to keep players on their toes.
"The best competition is not the opponents but the men besides you," he said. "That is why I am so grateful to Manchester City to let me build this squad.
"It is the best thing for the team that the players know if they don’t play, they have to be ready."
Laporte announced he would be available for selection by the French national team earlier this season, despite reports he could switch his allegiance to Spain, although he has yet to win a full cap for either nation.
Guardiola also countered claims from television pundit Gary Neville that his team are guilty of cynical fouls designed to prevent other teams counter-attacking against them.
Neville highlighted Brazilian Fernandinho, in particular, during this week's 1-0 win at Tottenham and joked that the City midfielder "must make 400 fouls a match".
But the City manager said that he had never instructed players to make a deliberate foul in his managerial career.
"I'm not disclosing a secret when I say that when the opponent has the ball we're going to push them, press them to regain the ball, to attack more," he said.
But he added: "I don’t think we are a team that makes a lot of fouls.
"I'm completely not agreeing with those comments that we are a team that is looking for these kind of situations because it never happened in Barcelona, it never happened in Bayern Munich and it can never happen at City and will never happen in the future in my career. Never."
Instead, Ousmane Dembele and Luis Suarez scored for Barca in the 87th and 89th minutes to pull off a remarkable comeback, in the absence of Lionel Messi.
It means Ernesto Valverde's side sit four points clear at the top of La Liga, seven ahead of Real and now four up on Atletico Madrid, who were held to a 1-1 draw by Leganes.
For Real and Solari, victory was all-important. Their opener in the 83rd minute was an own-goal, deflected off Kiko Olivas, but prompted by Vinicius' weaving run and shot, the kind of exuberance Madrid's toothless attack has been so bereft of in recent weeks.
Vinicius celebrated by running over to the bench and hugging Solari. He knows the youngster better than anyone at the club, having managed him with Castilla this season.
Previous coach Julen Lopetegui had, understandably, decided Madrid's B team was the best place for Vinicius to settle but with every chance missed, the youngster's reputation has swelled.
Lopetegui had repeatedly bemoaned a lack of luck too during his bad run and even that appeared to turn in Solari's favour. Vinicius' shot cannoned in off Olivas between Valladolid twice hitting the crossbar and Karim Benzema winning a dubious late penalty.
"When the ball won't go in you have to keep calm," Ramos said. "You have to ignore the uncertainty that is created. Finally, we have a positive result for our confidence."
There were whistles at half-time from the home crowd, and during the second half as well, but cheers, perhaps of relief, at the end.
Gareth Bale was not on the pitch to hear them after he had been replaced in the 71st minute with the team still searching for a goal.
-- 'Not a bunch of kids' --
Madrid, however, head into Wednesday's Champions League game against Viktoria Plzen with their first win in six league games, as well as their own confidence boosted and their coach's momentum enhanced.
"This is an experienced group, not a bunch of kids," Solari said. "They have found themselves too."
Madrid might have held little hope of reducing the gap on Barcelona this weekend but 19th-placed Rayo Vallecano came within a whisker of doing them a favour.
Jose Angel Pozo cancelled out Suarez's opener with a bending shot inside the post and then Alvaro Garcia put the home side ahead, tapping in from a yard within a minute of coming on as a substitute.
Rayo's fans believed but so did Barca, and when Dembele, also on off the bench, curved his shot in with three minutes left, there was still time for a winner.
Suarez grabbed it, pouncing for his sixth goal in four games, a brilliant run of form and just at the right time, while Messi recovers from his broken arm.
Valverde said Messi would be assessed ahead of Tuesday's Champions League game away to Inter Milan. He praised Suarez too.
"Suarez has been getting better and better for a long time," Valverde said. "Now he's getting more goals and now he's scoring them when we also need them most. We are delighted."
Earlier, Antoine Griezmann scored a sumptuous free-kick but Atletico Madrid missed the chance to go top for a few hours after drawing at struggling Leganes.
Griezmann's bending effort in the second half looked likely to prove the difference in a contest short on chances at Butarque but Guido Carrillo's 82nd-minute equaliser earned Leganes a deserved point.
"We played for more and wanted more but have to settle for a point," Diego Simeone said.
"The feeling is bitter-sweet," added Saul Niguez. "We know it is in these matches where the league is decided. Leganes played a great first half but we have to be more ambitious and should have won."