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One man has been more integral than most to Man City's remarkable season

Rúben Dias has shone at the heart of the Etihad outfit’s defence.

Manchester City's Ruben Dias pictured during the Champions League semi final.
Manchester City's Ruben Dias pictured during the Champions League semi final.
Image: PA

WHEN IT COMES to the signing of the season in the Premier League this year, there is no shortage of excellent candidates.

Tomáš Souček, Jesse Lingard, Ollie Watkins, Emiliano Martínez and Wesley Fofana have been among the standouts for their respective clubs.

Yet when the PFA Team of the Year is named, it would be hard to complain if the 11 comprised entirely of Man City stars, given how superior they have been to their rivals for much of the season.

And one man virtually certain to feature is the club-record signing, Rúben Dias, prised from Benfica for an eye-watering €68 million sum.

Still only 23, the Portuguese international was particularly impressive in shutting out the world-class players such as Neymar and Ángel Di María, as a relatively comfortable 2-0 victory over PSG saw Man City reach the Champions League final for the first time ever during the week.

There has been plenty of justifiable criticism of City’s off-field behaviour and the fact that they are funded by oil money with riches that far outstrip the majority of clubs in European football, making them a difficult team for most neutrals to embrace. 

Yet when it comes to the football they play, that aspect of the operation is easy to admire.

Despite not having a fully fit top-class striker to choose from — Sergio Aguero has had an injury-ridden campaign while Gabriel Jesus’ form has been patchy — they have still managed to run away with the Premier League.

A win against Chelsea at the weekend will wrap up a third title in four seasons, while defeating the same opponents on 29 May in the final of the Champions League — one of the few trophies that has eluded Guardiola since 2011 — will confirm a remarkable treble-winning campaign.

It is even more astonishing when you consider City have done it during a pandemic that has stretched most squads beyond their limits and coming off the back of a sub-par season. Many critics were even portraying them as a fading force amid an indifferent start to the campaign before a disappointing 1-1 draw with West Brom proved a turning point and prompted a tactical re-think.

Since then, the Etihad outfit have won 20 out of a possible 22 top-flight matches, dominating in Europe and triumphing in the League Cup, with a 1-0 FA Cup semi-final defeat against tomorrow’s opponents a rare low point.

As well as their altered tactics, one big difference from last season is their defence’s stability. 

With just 24 goals conceded from 34 games, they have comfortably the best record in the league.

It’s a stark contrast from last year, when in particular, a combination of the loss of defensive talisman Vincent Kompany and an injury to Aymeric Laporte saw their confidence waver, with Guardiola’s side conceding 35 goals and surrendering their crown, as they finished 18 points behind champions Liverpool.

It’s a measure of how far they have come that the previously pivotal Laporte is no longer an automatic first-choice selection, with Dias paired alongside a rejuvenated John Stones for Tuesday’s crucial game.

The superlatives arrived in abundance after that outstanding performance, with more than one critic likening Dias to the individual most would rate as the best defender in the world over the past couple of seasons — Liverpool’s currently injured star Virgil van Dijk.

His intelligence, leadership, timing, positional sense and composure on the ball certainly are reminiscent of the Dutch star, while if he avoids serious injury, there is no reason why the talented centre-back cannot have at least another 10 years of playing at the top level.

In addition, 59 appearances in all competitions this season, including 29 in the Premier League, highlights the unforgiving schedule that Dias has had to endure.

The PFA Player of the Year award has historically not been kind to defenders — so far, in the 28 seasons since the Premier League’s inception, just three centre-backs have been recognised for their performances — Van Dijk, John Terry and Paul McGrath.

And somewhat oddly, it was only last year when a Man City player was recognised for the first time in the award’s history, with Kevin De Bruyne picking up the trophy that has continually snubbed Kompany, Aguero and David Silva to name a few.

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Although Bruno Fernandes is the current favourite among many bookmakers and current Premier League top scorer Harry Kane is also a leading contender, City could well make it two in a row this year, and while De Bruyne, Ilkay Gundogan and Phil Foden have been similarly influential, Dias would surely be as deserving a candidate as any of them.

Upcoming Premier League fixtures

Friday

Leicester City v Newcastle (20.00)

Saturday

Leeds v Tottenham (12.30)
Sheffield United v Crystal Palace (15.00)
Man City v Chelsea (17.30)
Liverpool v Southampton (20.15)

Sunday

Wolves v Brighton (12.00)
Aston Villa v Man United (14.05)
West Ham v Everton (16.30)
Arsenal v West Brom (19.00)

Monday

Fulham v Burnley (20.00)

About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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