A Champions League dead rubber behind closed doors, with top spot in the group already secured. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, quite a bit, as it turned out. Pep Guardiola will not have lost too much sleep over Manchester City’s 2-1 defeat at RB Leipzig in December but Kyle Walker’s rush of blood during the closing stages had consequences he must begin to address tonight.
The England right-back was sent off for kicking out at Leipzig striker Andre Silva and handed a three-match ban by UEFA. Although City are appealing the severity of that punishment, they are without Walker for Tuesday’s last-16 encounter with Sporting Lisbon.
For a major European away game, the 31-year-old would almost always be one of the first names on the teamsheet. He is one of Guardiola’s most reliable performers and his physical prowess, recovery pace and tactical awareness make him a formidable foe on such occasions.
Of course, it’s not quite as simple as bringing in an understudy. City’s other right-back also happens to be one of the very best left-backs in world football right now, and how any selection impacts upon Joao Cancelo’s output will be foremost in Guardiola’s thoughts.
Here, we run through the three most obvious options open to Pep, assuming Ederson won’t slot in at full-back with Scott Carson starting in goal.
It shows how much has changed since last season’s Champions League final that Zinchenko being preferred to Cancel at left-back wasn’t even a remotely eyebrow-raising selection.
Their change in status since then is largely down to Cancelo’s own sensational form, rather than anything Zinchenko has done wrong.
In the 4-0 weekend win against Norwich, the Ukraine international returned at left-back and was at the heart of most of City’s best work in the first half, forming an eye-catching attacking triangle with Ilkay Gundogan and Raheem Sterling down his flank .
On the big occasion, Zinchenko has rarely let Guardiola down. He was superb during last season’s knockout stage wins over Paris Saint-Germain and Borussia Dortmund. Shifting Cancel to right-back and picking the 25-year-old feels like the most obvious solution to Walker’s absence and would reward a very popular member of the squad.
Plonking a central defender at full-back in European team sheet surprise would be a very Guardiola move but he’s actually road-tested this one and the results have been very encouraging indeed.
Stones has started two games on the right of a back four this season against Leeds United and Brentford. Facing the reigning Portuguese champions away from home promises to be a tougher test but City won those matches by an aggregate of 9-0.
“John Stones, without him it would not be possible,” Guardiola told BT Sport after the Brentford match, where the England international confidently stepped into midfield and displayed his sublime passing range. “He read perfectly the movements we should do to break a little bit of their structure. He did it incredibly well.”
Picking Stones at right-back would have the obvious benefit of not having to disrupt any other area of the team, with Cancelo continuing at left-back. Nevertheless, despite those recent successes, it remains the most untried option.
After form and fitness struggles – along with the inconvenience of a load of really good defenders being in direct competition – hindered Ake’s first season at City, the Netherlands international has proved to be a valuable member of the squad this time around.
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Defenders aren’t in the game for showreel moments, but Ake got one at Arsenal on New Year’s Day when he danced out Aymeric Laporte with an incredible goalline clearance. If there are title montages to be made in a few months, it will certainly feature.
Ake made that intervention from left-back, from where his capacity to tuck in and provide natural balance in a back three when Cancelo goes roving holds an obvious appeal.
Also, to quote fellow emergency left-back Fabian Delph, he is carrying out the baaasics of his craft very well. In the Premier League this season, Ake has an 88% tackle success rate, while his 86.1% of aerial battles won is the best in the division, according to FBref.
Who do you think should play instead of Kyle Walker in Lisbon? Follow City Is Ours editor Dom Farrell on Twitter to get involved in the discussion and give us your thoughts in the comments section below.