Stones set­back leaves Guardi­ola fac­ing test of his lead­er­ship

In­jured de­fender joins La­porte on the side­lines Man­ager backs academy grad­u­ates to plug gaps

The Daily Telegraph - Sport - - Sport | Champions League - Luke Ed­wards in Kharkiv

It is too early in the sea­son to worry about Manch­ester City, but Pep Guardi­ola is al­ready deal­ing with a cri­sis of sorts after John Stones picked up a thigh in­jury in train­ing that means they launch their Cham­pi­ons League cam­paign against Shakhtar Donetsk with only one spe­cial­ist cen­tre-back.

Stones’s form may have been a con­cern for a man­ager who made his sign­ing the first pri­or­ity when he came to Eng­land three years ago, although it is noth­ing com­pared to the prob­lems a lengthy in­jury could cause.

The Eng­land in­ter­na­tional, who was widely crit­i­cised fol­low­ing the de­feat by Nor­wich last week­end, broke down in a train­ing ses­sion in Ukraine yes­ter­day. Guardi­ola – who has also lost Aymeric La­porte un­til Fe­bru­ary with a knee in­jury – fears he will be out for at least four to five weeks. That leaves only Ni­co­las Ota­mendi avail­able to play, with de­fen­sive mid­fielder Fer­nand­inho poised to start along­side him in the cen­tre of de­fence in Kharkiv and cover pro­vided by academy grad­u­ates Eric Gar­cia and Tay­lor Har­wood-bel­lis.

For the rich­est club in Bri­tain, with a tal­ent pool so deep it has been the envy of most of Eu­rope for the last decade, the prospect of play­ing un­til the start of Novem­ber with one se­nior cen­tre-back is an un­ex­pected chal­lenge that Guardi­ola – for now – is rel­ish­ing.

“It’s a big chal­lenge,” said Guardi­ola, who is fac­ing Shakhtar in the group stage of the Cham­pi­ons League for the third suc­ces­sive year. “John went to make a pass in train­ing and there was a prob­lem with a mus­cle. It will be four or five or six weeks.

“For me as a man­ager, it is an in­cred­i­ble chal­lenge. We’ve got just one cen­tre de­fender in Nico – but I be­lieve a lot in some­thing peo­ple don’t know [about this team], which is the spirit and com­mit­ment and ev­ery­one must make a step for­ward to solve this prob­lem we have.

“I think the play­ers [who] are go­ing to go back into de­fence, like Fer­nand­inho, Tay­lor Bel­lis and Eric Gar­cia from the academy, we will go with them for the next few months.

“Some­times these sit­u­a­tions hap­pen. It has hap­pened and what we are not go­ing to do is com­plain.

“If they are not able [to play], they are not able, so we have to get 11 play­ers out and on the pitch and make an ex­tra ef­fort. I like it, to prove my­self and show we are able to find a so­lu­tion for the team, to make an in­cred­i­ble step for­ward and find a so­lu­tion to this prob­lem that we have. We have lost two im­por­tant cen­tral de­fend­ers in John and Aymeric, who are in­jured for a long time.”

Guardi­ola’s re­sponse sounded im­pres­sive and this is un­doubt­edly a chal­lenge which, if he can pass, will fur­ther raise his man­age­rial stock.

Many of the caveats at­tached to his stun­ning achieve­ments as a man­ager are that his suc­cess has come be­cause he has al­ways had the best and big­gest squads to choose from at Barcelona, Bay­ern Mu­nich and City.

Yet, the loss of two cen­tre-backs to in­jury and the fail­ure to sign a re­place­ment for Vin­cent Kom­pany in the sum­mer – City could not keep pace with Manch­ester United in the bid­ding for Harry Maguire and de­cided against a move for Bournemout­h’s Nathan Ake – has left them short

com­pared to pre­vi­ous years. Un­like some man­agers, Guardi­ola seems de­ter­mined to avoid shift­ing the blame or pick­ing a fight over re­cruit­ment, but it will be a huge test for his play­ers to en­sure he is not tempted to do so should they suf­fer a string of bad re­sults while Stones is miss­ing.

“It’s not a prob­lem, it is a chal­lenge,” Guardi­ola re­peated. “They will do it, no prob­lem, my play­ers are the best.

“We will work out with the play­ers that we have how to cre­ate some­thing. Foot­ball is not how you han­dle the good sit­u­a­tions, it is how you han­dle the bad ones.

“This team has done that in the past. We have won seven ti­tles, no­body gave us any­thing, we won them for our­selves. The ideal sit­u­a­tion does not ex­ist in foot­ball, it is how you ap­proach the chal­lenge and I am ready for the chal­lenge. I like it, I like to love this sit­u­a­tion.”

In the short term, Fer­nand­inho will move back into the hole left by Stones and the Brazil­ian has done well in that po­si­tion be­fore.

How­ever, at the age of 34, he will also be vul­ner­a­ble to in­jury if he is asked to play for ev­ery minute of ev­ery game.

“He ar­rived back late [in the sum­mer] and he’s 34 years old, that’s why he hasn’t played longer,” replied Guardi­ola when asked why his ap­pear­ances had been lim­ited.

“He trained last week in the in­ter­na­tional break and it went well. With the ex­pe­ri­ence he has as a team-mate and his per­son­al­ity, of course he can play in that po­si­tion.

“Some­times, for tac­ti­cal rea­sons, he played there last sea­son and now, with him, Tay­lor Bel­lis, Eric and Nico, we are go­ing to play

them in that po­si­tion.”

Side­lined: Cen­tre-back John Stones could be ruled out for up to six weeks

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