Oleks Zinchenko’s performance against Watford has partially solved Manchester City’s defensive crisis for the visit of Real Madrid on Tuesday. But Pep Guardiola still faces a major problem at right back — and suggested Saturday’s headline-grabbing hero Gabriel Jesus could be the man to solve it.
Jesus scored four goals and laid on the other for Rodri in a 5-1 win to underline his credentials as a striker. But with Riyad Mahrez and Phil Foden set to return to the front trio for the visit of the Spanish giants, Jesus is likely to be squeezed out, despite his outstanding display of him.
Guardiola threw in the possibility of Jesus stepping in at right back if John Stones is unfit, after missing the route of the Hornets through injury. It was unclear whether he was just including Jesus as an illustration of how he might require an extreme solution, or whether it was an active option.
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Two of Jesus’ best games in a City shirt were in the Champions League last 16 clashes with Real Madrid, when he scored and did a brilliant defensive job on Real’s attacking right back Dani Carvajal. That could be behind Guardiola’s right-back suggestion, with Kyle Walker out with an ankle injury and Joao Cancelo suspended.
Natural replacement Stones will be given until the last moment to declare himself fit, with the manager suggesting this might be an occasion when players need to play through the pain. On Walker and Stones, Guardiola said: “Both of them are doubts, we’ll know on Tuesday morning.
“We’ll decide if we take a risk or not, or if players like Nathan [Ake] feel better. We’ll see. I can say it’s a day to take a risk but if you are not able, if you have pain, you cannot play. Tuesday we’ll know.
“If it was November or December, it’s a problem but with seven games – if Gabriel had to play right back, he’d play right back. So it’s not a problem, when the players feel we are in real trouble, the players do an extra, they will do it, when the opponent is better, people say it’s a bad performance.
“You saw [against Watford] we can do things better and improve but you saw from minute one how they want to win games, next one and next one. When this happens, we know we can trust each other.
“You see them, the desire, the battles, how they ran when it was 5-1. This is why we have success, we have a lot of money of course but they run for each other. Less than one month to the end of the season but we are going to do it.”
Zinchenko set up Jesus for the early opening goal and then showed just how much his defending has improved with a superb last-ditch tackle to deny Emmanuel Dennis a big chance with City just 1-0 up. Guardiola clearly has faith in him, and with doubts remaining over Ake’s fitness — he came off the bench — the Ukraine international could be the only realistic option for the first leg.
Guardiola transformed Zinchenko from an attacking midfielder to left back, and the player impressed the manager with his professional attitude, and decision to refuse the offer of transfers to other Premier League clubs, as he wanted to stay and fight for his place at City. His chance for him came due to injuries to regular left back Benjamin Mendy and his replacement Fabian Delph, and Zinchenko has remained number two for the role behind Cancelo.
Guardiola added: “In the position, in the pockets, as an attacking player, that’s his position. But when we bought Oleks for £2million from Ukraine, he was a No. 10, to Phil Foden. But we don’t have a left back for many years. Fabian Delph adapted well and Oleks as well. Here I have adapted — he’s a reliable player, you have to understand they are human beings.
“What’s happening in his country, you cannot forget it. I know him, he didn’t need to play like that [against Watford] for us to know exactly who he is. For me or the team it’s not necessary. When he’s focussed, he handles the pressure, otherwise he would not have played in the final of the Champions League. I rely a lot on him but there are periods, where other players are better, more confident and he plays less.
“But who knows who will help us win the Premier League or reach the final of the Champions League. Everyone thinks they know – but sometimes it can be one who you don’t expect. That’s why everyone has to be ready and the glory will belong to them.”
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