Unlikely hero could solve Man City’s defensive injury crisis
Manchester City are now facing an injury crisis at the worst possible moment.
With six must-win Premier League games to navigate and a tough Champions League semi-final just around the corner, Pep Guardiola has been left with precious few full-back options thanks to injuries and suspensions. Kyle Walker limped out of City’s goalless draw with Atletico Madrid last week with a badly twisted ankle, and it’s now been revealed he’s out of the Watford and Real Madrid games.
A week later when the Blues defeated Brighton 3-0 at the Etihad Stadium, both Nathan Ake — who has enjoyed a renaissance of late — and the ever-reliable John Stones both limped off, the former with a twisted ankle and the latter with a muscle injury.
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On his defensive issues, Guardiola said: “I have few, few thoughts about Madrid. Brighton and Watford were so important – tomorrow [Saturday] at 5pm, 7pm I will start to watch. I don’t have much time to watch them. So we will see.”
The silver-lining is that Ruben Dias made his return from injury against Brighton, but he will not alleviate Guardiola’s full-back headache. City face Watford on Saturday with a chance to (temporarily at least) extend their lead at the top of the Premier League table to four points, but they may only have four fit defenders to chose from.
When Real Madrid visit the Etihad next week, the situation could be even worse. With Joao Cancelo serving a one-match suspension, if Ake and Stones are still out then Guardiola will have just three fit senior defenders to call upon.
One of those will be Oleksandr Zinchenko. The Ukrainian midfielder-turned-left-back has made just nine Premier League appearances this season, but then coming in from the cold to assist his team in a sticky situation is something he has become accustomed to over the last few years.
It’s fair to say that Zinchenko has not particularly impressed when given opportunities by Guardiola this term. Rustiness caused by lack of minutes — not to mention the distress caused by the Russian invasion of his homeland, which cannot have helped — has played its part, but with Zinchenko, one thing is guaranteed: he will give his absolute all on the pitch, no matter the opposition.
In recent seasons, Zinchenko has developed a habit of not playing much in the first half of the campaign before establishing himself as a regular starter during the title and Champions League run-ins.
In 2018/19, the Ukrainian featured in just three of City’s opening 26 league matches, before starting 10 of their final 12. Last season was a similar story, although his absence during City’s first 14 games was largely down to injury.
Yet by the end of the season he had established himself in Guardiola’s first-choice 11 — meaning he was often rested in FA Cup and League Cup games in order to preserve him for the Champions League. He made a significant contribution in City’s run to the final, particularly in the semi-final games against Paris Saint-Germain when he put in the best defensive displays of his City career.
Now, circumstances outside of anyone’s control have given him the opportunity to redeem the superhero role once again. If Zinchenko impresses against Watford and can put his FA Cup semi-final struggles behind him, then there is every chance that he will keep his place for the visit of Real Madrid next week.
Zinchenko is very much a player who needs a run of games to fully get into his stride. He’s been inconsistent this season, but if he can get that run of games then expect him to rediscover his best form and make a sizeable contribution to City’s end of season run-in.