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Zinchenko delivers timely reminder of why he’s so important to Guardiola’s Man City

12:00 GMT+4 24/04/2022
Oleksandr Zinchenko Manchester City
The Ukrainian is ready to help out in a defensive crisis after an impressive performance in the comfortable 5-1 victory over Watford

It would be understandable if Oleksandr Zinchenko’s thoughts were anywhere other than football at the moment.

The Ukrainian defender has watched on helplessly for the last few weeks as his homeland has been devastated by the Russian invasion.

But football has been something of a salvation, with his time on the training ground giving him an opportunity to forget all about what is happening for a couple of hours at least.

Manchester City and Pep Guardiola have been mindful of the strain and Zinchenko has been carefully protected since the incursion started.

He has started just three games since the beginning of March - the FA Cup matches against Peterborough and Liverpool and the Champions League second leg against Sporting C.P. when the tie had been effectively decided in Portugal.

But throughout, the 25-year-old has always made himself ready if Guardiola requires him and the City boss needs him now.

“Above all it's not been an easy period for Oleks,” he said after Saturday’s 5-1 victory over Watford. “What happened in his country with his loved ones - people forget about Ukraine, now we don't talk about it any more, there's no flags for Ukraine, Oleks is living it every day. 

“It's been a tough period for him personally and it's another occasion where the way he plays, the quality, the assist, he's always focused, always concentrating and he's incredibly appreciated in the locker room.”

The Premier League leaders are nursing an injury-hit defence and, with no room for slip-ups in their title race with Liverpool and a first Champions League trophy to win, everyone is needed to step up for the remainder of the season.

Against Watford, Ruben Dias made his first start following a seven-week break after recovering from a hamstring injury, but that was the only good news. 

John Stones was left out of the squad all together with a muscle strain while Aymeric Laporte played just over an hour and was replaced by Nathan Ake to make sure both weren’t over-stretched ahead of Tuesday’s European semi-final first leg with Real Madrid.

Guardiola already has enough problems for that fixture in the full-back positions, which is why Zinchenko’s performance against Watford was so encouraging. 

Joao Cancelo is already ruled out through suspension while Kyle Walker is a doubt - not playing a single minute since he limped off with an ankle injury against Atletico Madrid in the previous round.

Zinchenko has always been a reliable alternative for Guardiola whenever he’s needed him and has never shied away from throwing in him for big games - starting last season’s Champions League semi-final against Paris Saint-Germain and the 1-0 defeat to Chelsea in the final.

After playing five years under the Catalan coach, he knows exactly what’s required of him and while Watford were comfortably brushed aside, Zinchenko’s performance shows why he can be relied upon to step in effortlessly.

There was his involvement in the opening goal - playing high up the pitch to latch onto Cancelo’s cross before drilling a pass into Gabriel Jesus for a simple tap-in.

Then fewer than 10 minutes later, he sprinted to make a last-ditch tackle on Emmanuel Denis when the Watford forward should have scored. 

"Absolutely exceptional,” Guardiola said of Zinchenko’s performance. “We don't have many options. We don't have full-backs, I don’t know when Kyle will arrive, we will see, Joao is out and John will be difficult to get too. 

“Defence is about attitude. He's not the fastest but his focus is always there and that's the most important thing. People talk about and think about Kevin [De Bruyne], Jack [Grealish] and Phil Foden, but defending wisely is a talent. I like when my defenders enjoy defending.”

What followed Zinchenko’s standout moments was a typically destructive team performance from City with every player making a big contribution although Jesus understandably took the biggest plaudits for his four goals. 

But Guardiola was able to rest many of his big names and still pull apart the Hornets with Bernardo Silva, Foden and Riyad Mahrez on the bench and De Bruyne withdrawn early.

The final few weeks of the season will stretch City if they are to hold off Liverpool and land a second successive Champions League final.

After a painful period, Zinchenko will be relieved to be distracted by football.