Yaya Toure and Manchester City positioned to make most of last chance together
Yaya Toure’s long European odyssey began in Ukraine. Not too many were in the crowd when, aged 21, he played his first match in a Uefa competition, the first leg of a pre-qualifier in the old Uefa Cup.
Metalurg Donetsk had just signed him from Beveren in Belgium, and he took half an hour to establish he had something special about him. He scored Metalurg’s first goal in a 3-1 win over Tiraspol.
Eighty European fixtures later, Toure prepares for Dynamo Kiev and one of those many coming-of-age dates that have peppered his time at Manchester City in continental tournaments.
They are so many because City have not quite come of age yet as a European power. They aspire to winning the Champions League; they spend the sort of money that should certainly be carrying them closer to it than the last 16, where they meet Dynamo in the Ukrainian capital on Wednesday night, and which has marked their ceiling for the last two years.
Dynamo are not Barcelona. City have earned the right to come up against opponents of less calibre than the Barca who turfed them out in 2014 and 2015, and who in 2010 sold them the player who has done more to propel them upwards than any other during their period of superpower wealth and ambition.
Toure had won the Champions League with Barca 12 months before he moved to Manchester to become City’s dominant midfield presence, and if it was a jolt to be initially keeping the company on midweek evenings of Europa Leaguers, he knew City were upsizing significantly, intending to turn into the sort of opposition the likes of Barcelona would fear.
Toure has mixed memories of his Metalurg days. He spent 18 months there, having missed out a possible transfer to Arsenal – Arsene Wenger was not convinced, having given him a trial – and the European campaign he featured in was over by September, after a turning over by Lazio.
He came across on the more vile aspects of Eastern European football – “I hear some racist abuse when I played in Ukraine,” he told me – but matured as a player. Olympiakos signed him and introduced him to the Champions League. After a season at Monaco, Barcelona swooped.
Metalurg had been clever enough to keep hold of 50 per cent of his rights until that transfer; he is still represented by a former Metalurg executive, Dmitri Seluk, an agent whose garrulousness is often a gift to journalists but not always obviously in his client’s best interests.
Two years ago, Seluk was responsible for the loud complaint that City had not congratulated Toure excitedly enough on his birthday. Last month he gave an airing to his concerns about what Pep Guardiola’s arrival at City this summer would mean for the midfielder.
His worry may be well grounded. Guardiola liked Toure at Barcelona, though had some frustrations with his positional discipline and was the coach there when City lured him away.
Guardiola would also acknowledge there are parts of Toure’s game that have grown since they worked together: the productive direct free-kicks, for instance, and the rate of goalscoring. But Toure is not enjoying as good as season as he did in 2013/14, when City were last Premier League champions, and European nights tend to put him under a particular scrutiny.
That comes from a perception that, in too many of the high-calibre contests, matches against Barcelona or Bayern Munich, Toure has not taken a grip on events like he can in the domestic arena. There were moments in a tough group phase this season where he was a little careless in possession.
But he towered during the important home win over Sevilla, and for phases of other games. Topping a group that also included Juventus, who beat City twice, was a significant coming-of-age for the club. It meant avoiding Barcelona, and the other seeded teams come the knockouts.
Dynamo, who have been on a winter break since December, should be beatable. And Toure, whose 33rd birthday City will be preparing cakes and presents for in May, might never again have a better shot at adding a second Champions League gold medal to his collection.
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Published: February 23, 2016 04:00 AM