Absolutely terrified, I sat in my car. Manchester City were about to line-up in a crucial Premier League clash against Chelsea, the very team who had ended our unbeaten run in December at Stamford Bridge. I ran through the different possible line-ups in my head. Who stops Hazard? I had terrible flashbacks to that day in 2015 where the marvellous Belgian spun Nicolas Otamendi inside out before firing Chelsea into the lead, in what turned out to be the fatal blow in our pursuit of the league title that year.
“Ederson, Walker, Laporte, Stones, Zinchenko… hang on – Zinchenko!” I read aloud to my Grandad as the team news filtered through. His facial expression matched mine with one of puzzlement. I couldn’t help but think it was a classic Pep overthink. Why on earth couldn’t Danilo (who was in great form) slot in at LB? Zinchenko hadn’t played a single minute since our dead rubber second leg against Burton in the Carabao Cup and to throw him in with a game of this magnitude was a huge gamble.
The Ukrainian had played last season in the same fixture as one of the multiple step-ins for the injury-ridden Benjamin Mendy. His performance on a dominant City showing against an Antonio Conte side that was falling apart was solid but wasn’t really tested. This time he was up against a World Cup winner in Pedro and Hazard, who will surely be tempted to swap wings as the game goes on to use his bag of tricks against the kid.
Wow. A 6-0 thumping later and I couldn’t have been proved more wrong. What a performance it was not just by the team, but by Oleks himself. He helped himself to two assists, the first of which was just a simple square ball which admittedly Aguero rocketed in from 30 yards, so yeah, not exactly Denis Bergkamp. But his second assist for the 6th goal showed great movement to link-up a one-two with David Silva before firing a ball across goal to hand Raheem Sterling his 2nd of the game.
It wasn’t just his goal contributions impressed me though. His positivity from minute one to get the ball into the final third was brilliant and a Kevin De Bruyne-esque flicked ball caused chaos in the Chelsea box before it fell to Aguero for City’s 3rd goal of the game.
“Every player can learn for Oleks,” Pep Guardiola acclaimed in his pre-West Ham United press conference. There is no doubt in my mind that his comments were a subtle nudge to Leroy Sané and Riyad Mahrez that if you work hard in training and never ‘pull faces’, you will get your chance to shine, just like the Ukrainian has.
When City bought Zinchenko from FC Ufa for £1.7 million in 2016, I’ve got to admit that at the time I thought he was one of City’s projects where they buy a young player purely to develop and sell on for profit, similar to the likes of Patrick Roberts and Enes Unal before him (the list is honestly endless). This certainly seemed the case when the Blues sent him out on loan to Holland with PSV, where he admitted it was a tough year for him.
However, this adversity makes his story an inspiration not just for footballers, but for football fans in general. Before signing with Ufa, Zinchenko was without a club for 5 to 6 months, moving from street to street in a war-torn Donetsk with his family in the midst of the Ukrainian crisis. He was forced to flee to Russia where he signed with Ufa, but life wasn’t easy for him. He was forced to leave his boyhood club Shaktar Donetsk and was in a country completely alien to him.
When he signed with the Blues, the complete change of culture would’ve have been a shock to him and a massive gamble to take. Especially with the high quality squad we had and let’s put it frankly, our poor record in bringing through youth. His Manchester City debut came in a Carabao Cup Round of 16 tie versus Wolverhampton, where he found himself in an unnatural left back role. One thing that’s always impressed me about him (and was evident right from this game) was his calmness on the ball that players like Copa America winner Claudio Bravo have never seemed to show in a blue shirt. His past playing days as an attacking midfielder certainly seemed to be aiding him in his new position, especially with Guardiola’s style of play.
Game time, however, was limited, mainly due to the renaissance of Fabian Delph at left back. And a move away from City seemed all but likely in the summer. A few days before the transfer deadline, it seemed like all was in place for the Ukrainian to move to recently promoted Wolves, in a deal rumoured to be around £15 million. But just as it was set to happen, in a move I certainly didn’t expect, Zinchenko declined to instead fight for his place amongst this star-studded City squad. A move that was confusing, but a move City fans admired.
I really could go on all day about the young man that City fans have really grown to admire. I’m not one for using quotes but hard work really does beat talent, if talent doesn’t work hard. That is a prime reason why Zinchenko, who might not be the most naturally gifted players, has the potential… dare I say it… to become a cult hero at City, much like Pablo Zabaleta was.
What I’m trying to say is Oleksandr Zinchenko, keep doing what you’re doing and City fans will love you.
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