Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 16 October 2019

Defensive crisis for Manchester City as John Stones is ruled out for a month

Manager Guardiola is left with Otamendi as his only fit centre-half going into Champions League clash against Shakhtar Donetsk

Manchester City have a defensive injury crisis on their hands after John Stones picked up a muscle problem that could rule him out for a month.

With Aymeric Laporte out until February with a knee injury, City, who had four senior centre-backs last season, are now down to just one, with Nicolas Otamendi the last man standing after Vincent Kompany left in the summer. Stones was hurt in training with Pep Guardiola saying: “He made a pass and was injured.”

The City manager has vowed to cope and not to complain as City start their Champions League campaign Wednesday against Shakhtar Donetsk, with midfielder Fernandinho the favourite to fill in at the back.

“For me as a manager, it’s an incredible challenge, [with] just one central defender in Nico,” said Guardiola. He promised to be resourceful to fill the hole at the heart of his team.

Fernandinho won six Ukrainian titles in his eight years as a Shakhtar player but the Brazilian is set to be the centre of attention for other reasons as he faces his former club.

The 34-year-old is yet to start a game this season, the combination of his Copa America exploits and Rodri’s arrival sidelining him. Now, unless Guardiola turns to youngsters Eric Garcia or Taylor Harwood-Bellis, he will be a cornerstone of the side.

“Fernandinho and maybe Garcia and Harwood-Bellis are going to come forward in the next few months,” Guardiola said. “He [Fernandinho] can deal with it and we will create something.”

Guardiola successfully reinvented Javier Mascherano as a centre-back at Barcelona. Once again, he could convert a holding midfielder into a defender. “Yes, he can play that position because sometimes he played there last season, and now with Eric and Taylor we will use him in that position with Nico,” he said. “Now we have many options.

“It’s happened, but what we are not going to do is complain. If they are not able [to play], they are not able. We have to have 11 players on the pitch and I like it, to find a solution for the players to find an incredible step forward.

"People don’t know the spirit and resolve [we have] to solve this problem. Football is not how you handle good situations, but how you handle bad ones.”

City’s problems may be difficulties may be amplified by the reality that, like Stones, Otamendi endured an awkward evening when Norwich beat them 3-2 on Saturday.

Guardiola has given each his backing. “I have a lot of respect for what John and Nico have done,” he said. “What they have done and will do for our club.”

Phil Foden, who has a virus, is also out of tonight’s game but there is at least one encouraging element of injury news. Benjamin Mendy is fit again and if Oleksandr Zinchenko, a £1.75 million (Dh8m) winger deployed successfully as a left-back, is proof of Guardiola’s ability to reimagine footballers, the Ukrainian welcomes the competition for his spot.

“I'm so happy he is back,” Zinchenko said. “He has worked hard on his recovery. He is such an important player for us. It's a long season and we need more players."

Zinchenko and Fernandinho are not the only City players to know Shakhtar well. Since City’s 2-0 win at the Etihad in September 2017, they have already faced the Ukrainian champions more often than Bournemouth or Crystal Palace.

After November’s rematch, City will have played Shakhtar more often than Arsenal in a 26-month period. Asked if he was sick of playing Shakhtar, who he also encountered as Bayern Munich and Barcelona manager, Guardiola joked: “I have bought an apartment here. Almost every season I come.”

City lost 2-1 in Ukraine in 2017, albeit with a weakened team after already booking their spot in the last 16. They won 6-0, with a Gabriel Jesus hat-trick, and 3-0 last season but Guardiola insisted: “Every time I play against Shakhtar the way they play is very similar. It’s really tough. They are incredible on the counter-attack.”

While Liverpool won the Champions League last season, Jurgen Klopp suggested City are favourites this year by describing them as the world’s best side. Guardiola shrugged that off. “In this planet?” he said. “In earth? Wow. Time to concur the universe?”

Updated: September 17, 2019 07:58 PM

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