When Vincent Kompany limped off in the eighth minute of Tuesday night’s Champions League clash with Dynamo Kyiv, it provoked an overwhelming sense of déjà vu.
How many times has City’s captain seemingly been on the verge of hitting the form of his career only to be cruelly halted in his tracks by a troublesome calf injury? 13 times in the last four years, that’s how many.
Kompany returned to training earlier than most of his fellow professionals last summer, determined to finally rid himself of the recurring injury that’s plagued his prime years and hopeful of consigning a couple of below-par seasons to the past.
The Belgian began the campaign brilliantly, presiding over four consecutive Premier League clean sheets and scoring in both of the first two games. Then, in the fifth game, at home to Juventus in the Champions League, Kompany’s calf gave way and thus began yet another period of incredible frustration, both for the player and everyone involved with the club.
The skipper has only made 18 appearances this season and is expected to be out for at least another month, if not longer. He will miss Sunday’s crunch Manchester derby as well as the Champions League quarter-final and it’s difficult for City fans not to worry about how the team will cope in his absence.
On a personal level, this latest set-back must have come as a crushing blow to the man himself. You suspect he probably still genuinely believes he can help City to both Premier League and Champions League glory this season but there’s every chance both of those dreams will be dead in the water by the time he’s ready to make his next comeback.
And who could blame him for having one eye on this summer’s European Championships, where he’ll be hoping to lead Belgium’s golden generation to the nation’s first international honour in decades? This injury puts that dream in doubt too, and seriously jeopardises what will probably be one of his last chances to captain his country at a major tournament.
A weaker man would have given up on himself a long time ago but you can guarantee this one will keep fighting against his own body until the bitter end. The question is though, how much longer can his club afford to wholeheartedly support him in that fight?
Kompany’s importance to City has possibly never before been as evident than it has this season. When he’s been fit and playing well, his team has generally followed suit, but when he’s been out injured they’ve been a shambles defensively and none of his fellow central defenders have looked anywhere near capable of filling his enormous shoes.
The likes of Manuel Pellegrini and Txiki Begiristain must know as well as anyone that Kompany’s fitness is not something that can be relied upon anymore and the signings of Eliaquim Mangala and Nicolás Otamendi were honest attempts at addressing the defensive problem City have had for the best part of the last four seasons.
But neither of those signings have really worked out so far and this coming summer surely has to be the time that City make every effort to bring in a player who will not only be a good partner to Kompany when he’s available but also an adequate replacement for him when he’s not.
There are many reasons to be intrigued about what effect Pep Guardiola will have on this team when he takes the reins in the summer but perhaps the most intriguing of all concerns his plan for the defence. According to the 2014 book Pep Confidential, when Guardiola first took over at Bayern Munich he spent hours and hours on the training pitch coaching players who’d just won a treble in the art of defending, prompting former City defender Jérôme Boateng to conclude that, for the first time in his career, he had a coach who had a clear idea of how a defensive line should be set up and organised.
Guardiola isn’t going to allow City to defend as they have done in recent years because, in his own words, “It’s absolutely essential if I want to attack a lot. Defensive organisation is the cornerstone of everything else I want to achieve in my football.”
He may have the ability to turn the likes of Mangala, Otamendi and Jason Denayer into world beaters but bringing in a new player is probably going to be a safer strategy and Juventus’ Leonardo Bonucci – whom Pep last month said is one of his “favourite ever players” – would probably be pretty high on his wish list.
Vincent Kompany, meanwhile, is man whose immense contribution to Manchester City will never be forgotten and he should be allowed to stay at the club in whatever capacity he wants for as long as he wants. But at 29 years of age, he’ll know better than anyone that time is running out and, for his club and its fans, patience is wearing thin. City must start planning for life without him, even while he’s still around.
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Written by Dan Burke