Manchester City are now facing an injury crisis at the worst possible time.
With six must-win Premier League games up for grabs and a tough Champions League semi-final just around the corner, Pep Guardiola has been left with 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 has now been revealed to be out of Watford and Real Madrid games.
A week later, when the Blues beat Brighton 3-0 at the Etihad Stadium, Nathan Ake – who has been enjoying a renaissance lately – 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 very few thoughts about Madrid. Brighton and Watford were so important – tomorrow [Saturday] at 5 p.m., 7 p.m. I will start watching. I don’t have much time to watch them. So we’ll see.”
The silver lining is that Ruben Dias made his return from injury against Brighton, but he won’t ease Guardiola’s back headache. City face Watford on Saturday with a chance (at least temporarily) to extend their lead at the top of the Premier League table to four points, but they may only have four fit defenders to choose from.
When Real Madrid visit the Etihad next week, the situation could be even worse. With Joao Cancelo serving a one-game ban, if Ake and Stones are still out, then Guardiola will only have three in-form senior defenders to call on.
One of them will be Oleksandr Zinchenko. The Ukrainian midfielder-turned-left-back has made just nine Premier League appearances this season, but coming back from the cold to help his side in a sticky situation is something he has grown accustomed to over the past few years.
It’s fair to say that Zinchenko hasn’t particularly impressed when Guardiola has presented him with opportunities this season. The rust caused by the lack of minutes – not to mention the distress caused by the Russian invasion of his native land, which could not help – played its part, but with Zinchenko one thing is guaranteed: he will give his all. on the field, regardless of the opposition.
In recent seasons, Zinchenko has made a habit of not playing much in the first half of the campaign before establishing himself as a regular starter in title and Champions League clashes.
In 2018/19, the Ukrainian has made just three of City’s first 26 league appearances, before starting 10 of his last 12. Last season was a similar story, although his absence from City’s opening 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 to preserve him for the Champions League. He made a significant contribution to City’s run to the final, especially in the semi-final games against Paris Saint-Germain when he produced the best defensive performances of his City career.
Now, circumstances beyond 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’s every chance he’ll keep his place for when Real Madrid visit next week.
Zinchenko is truly a player who needs a streak of games to fully get into his stride. He’s been inconsistent this season, but if he can get this run of games, expect him to return to his best form and make a significant contribution to City’s end-of-season run-in.