Benjamin Mendy returns: A title race boost for Manchester City?
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Despite the lauded squad depth at Pep Guardiola’s disposal, the Catalan lacks a suitable replacement at two positions; defensive midfield and leftback.
While Fernandinho’s importance to the team has been shouted from the rooftops, Mendy is taken for granted. The manager’s irrepressible reaction suggested it should not be. The City boss could not hide his excitement in an interview ahead of the League Cup return leg with Burton Albion. He has missed the player’s contribution.
The only natural left back in the side underwent knee surgery in November. Guardiola could only improvise. Versatile midfielder Fabian Delph, inexperienced U23 Oleksandr Zinchenko, centre-back Aymeric Laporte and right back Danilo took turns in relief. Last term, the Cityzens coped well enough without the injured Frenchman, if you call a Premier League title coping. This season, opponents exploited the hole in Pep's lineup.
The former Monaco man recovered ahead of schedule, initially slated for a late-February return. City remains in contention for a quadruple but after suffering a surprising dip in form that resulted in three league defeats, the side needs all players fit and raring to go. No wonder Guardiola considers Mendy's availability such good news.
The December slide coincided with injuries to Sergio Aguero and Fernandinho. However, upon returning to full fitness, the players have helped the team resume its winning ways. Both were instrumental to the victory over title rivals Liverpool at the turn of the new year. The Argentine scored while the Brazilian emerged Man of the Match. Kevin De Bruyne wasn’t fully fit to contribute then but he too is now part and parcel of the group.
Surprisingly, the Belgian wasn’t overly missed. City’s midfield remained among the Premier League's best. Bernado Silva stepped in and did the job expertly. But it was different for the French left-back. Because City doesn't have a ready-made replacement on the books, his return feels like a new signing.
The 24-year-old has recovered at the right time for the Sky Blues. He will provide the necessary defensive cover for the remainder of the campaign [fingers crossed] as City strives to make up ground on league leaders Liverpool. The Reds head into spring riding on a comfortable four-point cushion.
City must be near perfect through season's end while hoping the Merseysiders stutter along the way. History is on their side in that regard. The Anfield mob is the only Premier League side to capitulate a New Year's lead in the standings.
Even if that weren't the case, Guardiola's squad has no choice but to believe anything can happen with 15 games left to play. Any break that comes their way should be welcome. In that sense, Mendy’s potential contributions are vital. When healthy to begin the campaign, he recorded five assists in nine appearances. His presence makes a dangerous team all the more deadly.
Knowing that City are gearing up for a charge, the pressure is also on Jurgen Klopp's side to produce a perfect run to finish the season and deny the Sky Blues the first back-to-back Premier League titles in a decade.