Monday 27 March 2017

Fighting-fit Toure adds to Guardiola's options

Manchester City's Raheem Sterling in action with Crystal Palace's Bakary Sako. Photo: Reuters / Hannah McKay
Manchester City's Raheem Sterling in action with Crystal Palace's Bakary Sako. Photo: Reuters / Hannah McKay

Gerry Cox

Pep Guardiola has no regrets over his treatment of Yaya Toure, but it is one of the coach's strengths that he is prepared to learn from experience and move on - just as he discovered on Saturday a little more about why the Premier League is unique.

Crystal Palace 1 Manchester City 2

Guardiola's reputation as the world's best coach has been built on a number of factors: excellent man-management, attention to detail, tactical innovation and, most importantly, a single-minded vision of what he wants to see from his teams and players.

Manchester City's Yaya Toure scores their second goal. Photo: Reuters / Hannah McKay
Manchester City's Yaya Toure scores their second goal. Photo: Reuters / Hannah McKay

If you do not buy into the latter, you are not in his plans. Toure discovered this in the summer, when he was one of the high-profile Manchester City stars ordered to shape up or ship out.

Samir Nasri was another of those ordered to lose weight. But, while the Frenchman has moved to Sevilla on loan, Toure worked hard to shed pounds and regain the form and fitness that once placed him among the world's leading players.

He did not look world-class against Palace, when Guardiola surprisingly selected him for his first Premier League game of the season, but the Ivorian looked refreshed and more mobile, and scored the goals that took City back to joint-leadership of the league before Chelsea's win at Middlesbrough yesterday.

Slimmer and fitter, he was like a new player, closing down opponents, shuttling between defence and attack and scoring a goal in each half either side of Connor Wickham's equaliser for Palace.

Manchester City's Bacary Sagna in action with Crystal Palace's Christian Benteke. Photo: Reuters / John Sibley
Manchester City's Bacary Sagna in action with Crystal Palace's Christian Benteke. Photo: Reuters / John Sibley

Ovation

Toure was applauded off the field by his team-mates, and he said afterwards: "I like how they gave me a standing ovation. These guys have always been there for me. The situation was very difficult but I am happy. I thank the manager for letting me play."

Toure's problems were exacerbated by comments from his agent, Dimitri Seluk, that Guardiola had humiliated the player by excluding him from City's Champions League squad. It was only after Toure apologised this month that he was fully welcomed back into the fold.

Guardiola said he had no regrets about the decisions he has made. "I'm here to take decisions. Maybe I make mistakes, but I have to take decisions. I respect that all the people cannot agree with me. I can accept that."

He added: "I spoke many times in the last month with Yaya because he was my player with Barcelona and I know him very well.

Manchester City's Yaya Toure celebrates scoring his side's second goal of the game. Photo credit: John Walton/PA Wire
Manchester City's Yaya Toure celebrates scoring his side's second goal of the game. Photo credit: John Walton/PA Wire

"As a player there is no doubt (about his ability); if there was a doubt, he would not be here."

Toure cannot play in City's remaining Champions League group games, beginning with Wednesday's visit to Borussia Monchengladbach, but Guardiola said: "If we qualify in the Champions League, I will sit with my staff and we will decide who are the best players to help us to achieve what we want."

Earlier this month City beat Barcelona, but draws against Everton, Southampton and Middlesbrough have halted their domestic progress, and Palace almost nicked a point when Jason Puncheon stabbed a shot wide in the dying embers of a scrappy game. Guardiola is learning how to grind out results.

"Unlike in Spain, here the game is not over until you are two or three goals ahead. That's why I need a little bit more time to handle these kinds of things."

After five successive defeats, Palace are now one point above the relegation zone. Their points-per-game ratio of 0.71 in 2016 is the worst in England's top four divisions, and manager Alan Pardew said: "I am hoping in the next five games we get our slice of luck and a little break here and there."

They face bottom club Swansea next weekend, and he added: "It is a pivotal game in our season."

Toure, meanwhile, will be hoping that Saturday's match will prove to be the start of his season.

Since taking over at City, Guardiola has built his midfield around Fernandinho, Kevin De Bruyne and Ilkay Gundogan, with David Silva and Fernando involved as well. Now he has Toure, arguably one of the most important players in City's history, to call on too.

Guardiola said that having a fit Toure would allow him to rotate more in midfield, but the Ivory Coast international will certainly not go back to being as important as he was in his glory days four years ago.

City have power and goals through the middle but it comes from De Bruyne instead.

On Saturday, Toure played between De Bruyne and Fernandinho in midfield, scoring both City goals as well as adding some presence and calm against a very direct powerful opponent.

Contribute

He will certainly be able to contribute that again over the next few months, especially when the fixtures pile up over Christmas.

All Toure wants to do now is to play football again. He has certainly not enjoyed his long exile from the first team but feels now like he can contribute more than he has done for some time.

Toure feels fully injury-free for the first time in two years. He has lost the weight that Guardiola told him to back in July - so much so that City's head coach said on Saturday evening that Toure was in the shape of his life. It certainly appeared that way watching him play against Palace.

To hear Guardiola and Toure speaking about each other was to remember that the pair, despite everything, are very close.

There has never been a personal issue between them, although the relationship between his agent and Guardiola is another story.

"I spoke in the last month many times with Yaya. Because he was my player with Barcelona, I know him very well," Guardiola said.

If Toure continues to do well then Guardiola will have two decisions to make.

The first concerns the Champions League squad for the tournament's knock-out rounds. City can change their list after the group phase, providing they qualify.

The next question for City, if Toure does well, will concern his contract.

This is his last year and the expectation was that he would leave next summer, seven years after joining. There have been very lucrative offers from China but Toure would rather stay in the Premier League. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

 

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