Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola has apologised for Riyad Mahrez’s lack of action.
Mahrez, City’s £60million record signing, has not started a Premier League game since the victory at Southampton on December 30.
Guardiola insists the Algerian has done little wrong but the form of others – notably Raheem Sterling, Leroy Sane and Bernardo Silva – has simply prevented him getting into the side.
Guardiola said: “I am the reason (he has not played). He is absolutely not guilty.
“I am sad because he is training incredibly. He is an incredibly talented player but in this moment we have five strikers. In the last games Leroy hasn’t played.
“We have incredible players, like for example Bernardo and Raz (Sterling) in top, top form and that is the only reason why. There’s no particular reason, like being upset or something like that.
“He is a guy we are happy with but unfortunately I am not kind with him. In fact, I cannot give him the minutes he deserves, so I’m sorry. That’s all I can say.”
Mahrez has had to make do with substitute appearances in the league and cup starts against Rotherham, Burton and Burnley in recent weeks.
Guardiola, however, has been pleased with the former Leicester forward’s attitude and promises his chances will come.
The 27-year-old could be involved as City face Newport in the fifth round of the FA Cup on Saturday. Further chances could come as a result of rotation with the Champions League resuming this week.
He said: “I am unfair in the fact that, if he had played the minutes that the others have played, he would have been in the top level like the players who are playing.
“It’s not easy for one guy who does not play regularly to come in and play at a high, high level. Give him five or six games in a row playing and he is going to play at the level of Sterling or Bernardo, or the players who play.
“When he played four or five games in a row he was incredible, outstanding.
“I don’t have any doubts about his quality. Just keep going, not complain too much, move forward and fight more and more.
“His time is coming and I’m pretty sure he is going to play good.”
Gianfranco Zola insists Chelsea are providing Callum Hudson-Odoi with “plenty of reasons to feel wanted”, despite the player’s lack of first-team football.
Winger Hudson-Odoi is unsettled at Stamford Bridge and handed in a transfer request last month following a £35million bid from Bundesliga champions Bayern Munich.
The 18-year-old, whose contract expires in 2020, has been restricted to just 19 minutes of senior action since the close of the transfer window and is still awaiting his first Premier League start.
His head may also have been turned by seeing England forward Jadon Sancho, who is around seven months older, thriving in Germany with league leaders Borussia Dortmund.
But Blues assistant boss Zola is adamant Hudson-Odoi is appreciated by the west London club, while pointing out that few players of his tender age regularly represent Europe’s top clubs.
Asked if Chelsea’ coaching staff had a sense of urgency to make the player feel valued in the aftermath of Bayern’s interest, Zola replied: “I disagree on that. He’s always on the edge of the team.
“As soon as there is an opportunity, he plays. Sometimes from the beginning. Sometimes he comes on.
“The manager is giving him plenty of reasons to feel involved and wanted. I want to stress this out: there aren’t many 18-year-olds in Europe playing as many games as he is. There might be one or two.
“He’s playing. And, on top of that, he’s a player we appreciate and we believe is growing up.
“He has a bright future in this club, the whole coaching group like him.
“Please, you need to understand that he’s surrounded by top players. You have to work hard to be better than them, and that’s what we want.
“We want him to play but also keep improving. He can still do better than he’s doing.”
Chelsea bounced back from last weekend’s 6-0 thrashing at Manchester City by securing a narrow 2-1 Europa League victory in Malmo on Thursday night.
However, Maurizio Sarri’s position as head coach remains in doubt, with the Blues facing a crucial run of fixtures.
Monday’s FA Cup tie with Manchester United is followed by Thursday’s Europa League last-32 second leg with Malmo and the February 24 Carabao Cup final with Pep Guardiola’s City.
Manchester United interim manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer expects to be without both Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial for at least a fortnight.
Lingard was substituted just before half-time in the Champions League defeat to Paris St Germain in midweek with a hamstring injury while Martial’s groin complaint saw him withdrawn before the start of the second half.
Solskjaer said: “I think they’ll be out for two to three weeks, looking at it now.”
The news is a huge blow for United, who travel to Chelsea for an FA Cup fifth round clash on Monday before welcoming Premier League title challengers Liverpool to Old Trafford next weekend.