x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Yaya Toure back in the fold for Manchester City's final stretch

Manchester City welcome their talismanic midfielder Yaya Toure back to the team hoping he can inspire them to a second successive title, writes Richard Jolly.

Manchester City's captain Yaya Toure returns to a Manchester City side that will need a late-season push to defend their title and keep pace with Manchester United. Julian Finney / Getty Images
Manchester City's captain Yaya Toure returns to a Manchester City side that will need a late-season push to defend their title and keep pace with Manchester United. Julian Finney / Getty Images

MANCHESTER // Exquisite and extraordinary, Sergio Aguero's equaliser against Liverpool could have been the highlight of an otherwise demoralising afternoon for Manchester City last Sunday.

But only maybe.

Because perhaps the biggest boost Roberto Mancini received came not from East Manchester but South Africa, not from a scorer but a scoreline.

Ivory Coast 1 Nigeria 2, in the African Cup of Nations, the bulletin from Rustenburg that may have condemned a golden generation to disappointment but bolstered the Premier League champions' squad for Saturday's trip to Southampton.

Ivory Coast's greatest group of players are unlikely ever to be African champions now but Yaya Toure, City's enforcer, returned to Etihad Stadium a week ahead of schedule.

With Ivory Coast the pre-tournament favourites for the continental tournament, it was expected that the midfielder, along with brother Kolo and Abdul Razak, would be playing in tomorrow's final.

Instead, the trio are the reinforcements City, who did not make a signing in the transfer window, required.

"I am sorry they didn't win but I am happy because they are here," said Mancini. One of them in particular. "Yaya is really important," the manager added.

Twice within a week, City stumbled in their pursuit of the title. Twice, Yaya Toure might have made a difference. The goalless draw against Queens Park Rangers came at a venue, Loftus Road, where he had scored a winner to decide a close game last season.

The 2-2 draw with Liverpool occurred with his deputy, Javi Garcia, partly responsible for Daniel Sturridge's goal and with Steven Gerrard the most authoritative and powerful midfielder on show.

Not for the first time, Toure looked irreplaceable.

"Even when he doesn't play well, he is important on the pitch," Mancini said. "We have missed him a lot in the last 20 days." And City may have had an unfortunate sense of deja vu.

At the start of 2012, they lost two of the cornerstones of their side, Toure to the African Cup of Nations and Vincent Kompany to a four-match suspension. Move forward a year and, with Toure in Africa again, the captain picked up a calf injury that has sidelined him for the past two weeks. Kompany faces a fitness test today.

A year ago, City suffered without Toure, exiting the FA Cup and the League Cup in his absence.

This time, their challenge for the Premier League has faltered. The four points that slipped from their grasp in back-to-back games leaves them nine adrift of Manchester United.

Both Mancini and goalkeeper Joe Hart have said City may require 13 wins from their final 13 games if they are going to be able to retain their title.

Until he limped off in the title-deciding against QPR, Toure was City's star player in the final weeks of the season, overpowering Manchester United and with his two goals, overcoming Newcastle United in the penultimate game. Now he has issued a rallying cry.

"All we need to do is think about last season to know what is possible," Toure said this week.

"On paper, United have an easier run than we do but the title race is a long way from finished. It only takes a couple of results to go our way and we're right back in it."

That, too, is Mancini's view. "If Manchester United draw or [have a] defeat, the title race is reopened," the Italian said.

Despite his declaration that City may need to finish the season with a 100 per cent record, he believes the greater time span gives City an advantage this year.

"If we can recover eight points in six games [last year], I think recovering nine points in 13 games will be easy," he said.

At any rate, it will be easier with Yaya Toure back.

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