Injury crisis leaves Pep Guardiola with another Champions League conundrum

Pep Guardiola addresses the media ahead of the Champions League semi-final (AFP via Getty Images)

Pep Guardiola previewed Manchester City’s last Champions League knockout tie against a team from Madrid by dismantling the oft-repeated criticism that he ‘over-thinks’ these types of games. “I love to overthink and create stupid tactics,” he declared before what would be a bruising 1-0 aggregate victory over the two legs against Atletico Madrid. “Tonight I take inspiration and there will be incredible tactics tomorrow. We’ll play with 12.”

Guardiola was joking, of course, but that joke isn’t funny anymore. Never mind playing with 12. As Real Madrid prepare to visit the Etihad for the first leg of a semi-final tie on Tuesday night, City will struggle to field the requisite 11 in their natural positions after a spate of injuries and suspensions has hit Guardiola’s back line. Some over-thinking may be required, after all.

When Guardiola held his pre-match press conference on Monday lunchtime, Kyle Walker and John Stones were both still doubts. “They didn’t train, Kyle the last week or 10 days and John’s not trained since Brighton. Today’s the training session, I don’t know if they will come out,” he said. “We’ll see how they feel. Tomorrow we’ll take the decision, I’ll speak with them about how they feel and take a decision.”

A couple of hours later, the pair were not present for the training session in front of broadcasters’ cameras at the City Football Academy. Walker has not played since twisting his ankle awkwardly in the second leg against Atletico, while Stones was substituted during last week’s victory over Brighton complaining of a tightness in his muscles and was absent from Saturday’s win over Watford.

Joao Cancelo, meanwhile, is suspended for this first leg after picking up a yellow card during the Battle of the Metropolitano a fortnight ago. Nathan Aké will most likely take Cancelo’s place at left-back. The left-footed center-half is not a natural in the position and offers little of Cancelo’s adventure and creativity in possession. Like Stones, he too came off against Brighton but returned as a substitute against Watford. He is a willing and able body, at least.

The main problem is right-back. It is a position that one of the absent trio – Walker, Cancelo and Stones – has tended to fill this season. There are three alternatives available to Guardiola or, at least, three that are immediately obvious to us mere mortals.

The most likely is that Oleksandr Zinchenko – perhaps the only real utility player in City’s squad – switches over to that flank. After arriving in Manchester as a left-footed attacking playmaker six years ago, he has been retrained as a left back and is the squad’s only real utility player. Zinchenko was excellent when trusted on the road to last year’s final, particularly in the home leg of the semi against Paris Saint-Germain. Another big performance in an even more unfamiliar position may be required.

Another option is to move Ruben Dias wide and drop Fernandinho into the center of defence, a position he has not filled since spending almost the entirety of the 2019-20 campaign there, when a combination of poor succession planning for Vincent Kompany and an season- ending injury to Aymeric Laporte sent City’s season into a tailspin from which it never truly recovered. Fernandinho did well enough in the circumstances. To ask him to do so again, a week or so away from his 37th birthday, may be a bit much.

Ruben Dias has only recently returned from injury (Getty Images)

Ruben Dias has only recently returned from injury (Getty Images)

Another option might be to trust CJ Egan-Riley, a 19-year-old right-back brought up through the academy. The Manchester-born teenager is a natural on that flank. He also coped well when he unexpectedly started and played the entirety of the second leg against Sporting Clube de Portugal in the last-16, when Guardiola had a similar if less severe headache. City were already 5-0 up from the first leg that night and have no such cushion to fall back upon this time.

Whichever of those three routes Guardiola decides to take – or if he over-thinks his way down an entirely different path – the thought of Vinicius Jr running at any of City’s three right-back options available to him is an intimidating one. The Real Madrid winger had struggled under the weight of expectation on his shoulders in seasons past but, this year, with 17 goals and 18 assists in all competitions, he has looked every inch the elite-level attacker that Madrilenos demand.

In fact, the only thing scarier than that vision of Vinicius is the possibility of another City defender suffering an untimely injury. Aké will only just be returning after his knock against Brighton. Dias’ start against Watford at the weekend was his first since early March and his recovery from a hamstring problem. City’s lack of depth has come under the spotlight recently and Guardiola’s revelation that his physios administered 71 treatments to ailing players during the Atletico-Liverpool doubleheaders was extraordinary.

“The people don’t believe the decisions you have to take,” the City manager lamented after revealing that fact last Friday. What may look like ‘over-thinking’ is sometimes actually the careful management of load, fatigue and niggling injury. These are the problems that managers working with a small squad, like Guardiola, have to solve on a regular basis. And this particular conundrum, before the first leg of a Champions League semi-final, could prove to be this season’s biggest.

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