Shock Ruben Dias call means Pep Guardiola’s old favourite can prove big-match credentials again – Dominic Farrell
John Stones received a dubious gift from Pep Guardiola ahead of Manchester City’s top-of-the-table Premier League clash against Chelsea.
It is the sort of game any elite player is desperate to be a part of, but Stones’ selection is the sort of pick that will almost certainly be held up as a reason for defeat if Thomas Tuchel’s side are able to significantly interrupt City ’s 11-match winning run.
Ruben Dias’ presence on the bench is a curious one, especially with no midweek fixture to consider.
Since the Portugal centre-back’s arrival in September 2020, he has been a lock-in for the biggest matches.
A game where City can effectively end Chelsea’s title hopes and take a giant step towards a fourth Premier League success in five seasons certainly puts Saturday’s lunchtime encounter in that category, even if a 10-point lead at the summit has removed a decent chunk of the expected jeopardy.
However, Guardiola does like to reward his players’ hard work and commitment in kind and Stones has not done an awful lot wrong during an unusual season for him personally. The very best version of a player Pep staked a chunk of his reputation upon back in 2016 remains.
The England defender’s central defensive alliance with Dias was the rock on which City built all their success in 2020/21, although he returned from Euro 2020 shy of full fitness.
Some of the niggling injury setbacks that previously hindered Stones at City returned, but mainly Aymeric Laporte’s impressive showings – although far from error-free – and the balance he proves as a left-footed central defender inside Joao Cancelo, has meant extended periods of the ex-Everton man biding his time.
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Tuchel’s decision to select Romelu Lukaku as his attacking focal point meant Dias’ omission jarred a little more, but Stones’ aptitude for a heavyweight physical battle is often under-rated on account of him being such a sublime ballplayer.
Towering displays in the impressive wins over Manchester United and Paris Saint-Germain before the turn of the year showed Stones’ form to be in good order. His big-game credentials should be beyond doubt by this stage.
However, he was back with brother-in-arms Dias for both those games. The challenge today is for Stones to play with similar authority and class without his preferred partners in crime.
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