Given Joao Cancelo’s new-found importance to Manchester City, it seems incredible that the Portugal full back was deemed surplus to requirements for last season’s Champions League final.
Cancelo spent the entirety of the 1-0 loss to Chelsea in Porto on the bench, having dropped out of City’s team in the final months of the season following rocky defensive displays that ended up overshadowing his obvious attacking qualities.
Indeed, Pep Guardiola has spoken about friction with Cancelo, the player’s initial struggles with City’s style of play and unhappiness at being rotated in and out of the team.
Now, there’s no chance of Cancelo not being in the team should City make it to the final again this year. In fact, there’s a case for him being City’s most important player halfway through his third season at the English Premier League champions.
That’s because of his value to City in an attacking sense, as much as a defensive one. As a hybrid defender-midfielder, Cancelo might just be unique in world football given his ability to transition from a full back — on either side — to a central-midfield playmaker and even into a potential goalscorer.
His significance should be judged more than on his own attacking stats — from full back, he already has eight assists and a goal in the Premier League this season. It’s what he does for the rest of the team, allowing attacking midfielders like Kevin De Bruyne, Bernardo Silva and Ilkay Gundogan to get further forward and closer to goal.
City doesn’t have an out-and-out striker in its squad this season but you wouldn’t know it at times, given the numbers the team gets in the box and the amount of goals it still manages to score.
Cancelo is a big reason for that.
The fact he was one of four players left out of the 4-0 win at Norwich on Saturday — along with De Bruyne, holding midfielder Rodri and center back Aymeric Laporte — ahead of City’s return to Champions League action this week was telling. These are perhaps the men Guardiola simply cannot do without if City is to claim its first title in Europe’s top competition.
Ironically, Laporte and Rodri were unused subs in last year’s final, too.
And Cancelo wouldn’t want to miss City’s first-leg game against Sporting in the last 16 on Tuesday. After all, he is a fan and former player of Benfica, the big Lisbon rival of Sporting.
“I want to beat Sporting not just as a Benfica supporter but because they are our opponents and we want to qualify for the next round,” said Cancelo, who left Benfica in 2014 and played for Valencia, Inter Milan and Juventus before moving to City in a deal worth a reported 60 million pounds ($80 million).
“Sporting are a great club. They have a great youth set-up, that’s where Cristiano (Ronaldo) came from, that’s where (Luis) Figo and Nani came through. Great players. We have to value Sporting as a club — one of the biggest in Portugal — and they are getting back to the success of previous times.”
Sporting is playing in the knockout stage for the first time since 2008-09 after finishing ahead of Erling Haaland’s Borussia Dortmund in their group, but will be seen as perhaps the best possible draw for City.
Sporting will surely not be lifting the European Cup in St. Petersburg in May, but many feel — once again — this is City’s season.
“This club hasn’t won the Champions League yet but we’re not obliged to win it,” Cancelo said.
“People on the outside might think that,” he added, “but we don’t think that … We know we have one of the best teams in Europe, one of the best squads. But I think winning the Champions League isn’t an obligation. You have to go up against the best teams in Europe and face the best players in the world. We are capable of winning it but it’s not our duty.”
With Kyle Walker suspended, Cancelo will be filling in at right back at Estádio José Alvalade. That means Oleksandr Zinchenko, who started the final ahead of Cancelo, plays at left back.
Playing on the left or the right, Cancelo has managed to maintain his high standards this season despite a traumatic incident in December when intruders broke into his home.
To protect his partner and their 2-year-old daughter, Cancelo tried to fight off the intruders and suffered cuts and bruising around his right eye, which he showed in a photo on Instagram.
“That’s life, it happens, but it was horrific,” he said. “They terrorized my whole family. For me, I know how to deal with it but my family didn’t deserve to go through that.”
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