MANCHESTER // What do you get the manager who has everything? In the case of Roberto Mancini, the answers would appear to be either a duplicate or a new nationality for the player he never countenanced omitting, but who is now missing.
Yaya Toure's is a season of two halves, and the first concluded after Tuesday's 3-0 win over Liverpool.
The intermission begins with today's FA Cup tie against Manchester United and may last until February 13, Because of the Ivory Coast's training camp in Abu Dhabi, Toure will be preparing for the African Cup of Nations.
City, who had hoped he would be available for both the Manchester derby and Wednesday's Carling Cup semi-final first leg with Liverpool, instead begin life without their most indispensable player, even if a suspicious Sir Alex Ferguson thinks he may feature.
It comes at an inopportune moment. Toure's absence is compounded by Gareth Barry's suspension after the Englishman's dismissal against Liverpool. Nigel de Jong, who has been out of sorts this season, and James Milner may be the second-string alliance in the middle.
They may find themselves damned by comparison. "I try to find another Yaya in the squad but there isn't another Yaya," said Mancini mournfully. If there were, the Manchester City manager would have surely selected him, too.
While Toure sits out one of the biggest days of City's season, he is alone among their outfield players in starting every Premier League game - even David Silva, often deemed irreplaceable, has begun three on the bench - as well as each of their six Champions League games. The reasons are evident: he is the workhorse who can gallop, surging 80 yards to win 10-man City a penalty against Liverpool. He is the athlete who can use the ball, completing the most passes in the Premier League this season.
In his adaptability, he is virtually a one-man spine to a side. "I can play different positions because for me the most important thing is contributing to the team," he said. "If I can help the club, I will." He offered flawless assistance to Barcelona as a stand-in central defender in the 2009 Champions League final.
For much of his first season in Manchester, he was reinvented as an attacking central midfielder; indeed, in that role he scored the FA Cup semi-final winner against United last season on the day Manchester decamped to London. He is sufficiently adept as an attacker that Mancini has made seemingly defensive substitutions, like bringing Gareth Barry on for Adam Johnson against Villarreal, when City need a goal, purely to push Toure further forward and exert his considerable influence there.
And yet he is in his element in his favoured position. Toure does not camouflage his preference for the centre of midfield, where his varied attributes - his ability to knit play together and to pick a perceptive pass, his capacity to shield the defence and score a goal, his long-distance running and sprinting speed - can be combined most effectively. His skill set is unrivalled in English football.
It is why his absence represents the biggest boon to United. They have been ravaged by injury and suffered back-to-back defeats, but they will be spared a second savaging by an Ivorian enforcer. Newcastle's hyperactive Cheik Tiote performed a demolition job in Wednesday's 3-0 thrashing.
It may be especially fortunate, given an all too familiar criticism. In the past seven transfer windows, Sir Alex Ferguson has opted not to sign a central midfielder, whether a creator to replace the retired Paul Scholes or a forceful, physical player to protect the back four.
Yet the need has become most pressing of late. Darren Fletcher and Tom Cleverley are sidelined and Anderson, though recovering from injury, is without a start since City's 6-1 win at Old Trafford. The probable pairing is of Michael Carrick and Ryan Giggs, a duo whose footballing intelligence sometimes cannot disguise a lack of the power Toure provides City.
United are accustomed to making do in the midfield. Now City have to do likewise, to hope De Jong can recapture the destructive form he showed last season and to see if the adaptable Milner can rise to the challenge of deputising for Toure. It is little wonder that Mancini said: "January is a crucial month for us." In some ways, it is the pivotal month.