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Fernandinho: The Brazilian key to Manchester City

Christmas and the first month of the New Year were not, by Pep Guardiola’s exacting standards, a particularly merry period for Manchester City.

True, there was the hard-fought win over direct rivals Liverpool on January 3, but a total of three losses in seven league games – to Crystal Palace, Leicester and Newcastle – had allowed the Reds to take control of the title race.

Eyebrows were firmly raised among those who believed City would retain their title with the swaggering style they showed in 2017-18. If Guardiola sides do blips, then this was one of them.

February came and, against top-four chasing Arsenal, they needed a result and confidence-boosting performance to put the mid-winter jitters behind them - to get Manchester’s baby blue juggernaut pointing back in the right direction.

City delivered, swatting the visitors aside and running out 3-1 winners. “We didn’t recognise ourselves in the last game against Newcastle,” Pep said post-match, “but today we came back.”

Another win against Everton followed, then the 6-0 demolition of Chelsea and suddenly they were back on top, albeit having played one game more than the Merseysiders.

Sergio Aguero’s three goals grabbed the headlines in the tide-turning game against the Gunners – another Premier League hat-trick; three classic, low-cross-across-the-six-yard-box, Pep Guardiola training ground specials; Aguero’s 38th, 39th and 40th goals against England’s big six.

But it was where the crucial second goal originated that really showed the foundation on which this Guardiola team is built.

Let’s work backwards from the Aguero finish. The assist came from Raheem Sterling, a perfectly-weighted, first-time, left-footed cross after a delightful, dinked one-two with Ilkay Gundogan.

But the pass that really made the move, initially finding Sterling in acres on the left, had come from the feet of Fernandinho. And even before that switch of play, it was the Brazilian who had dragooned the team forwards, gliding out from defence with the ball at his feet.

Fernandinho

He is City’s understated organiser; tireless, indomitable, and seemingly omnipresent. On the day of the Super Bowl, the pass and performance felt appropriate. Fernandinho acting as City’s quarterback, taking a leaf from the Tom Brady playbook of pinpoint diagonal passes.

On the team sheet before the game, the wiry ex-Shakhtar man had been listed as a central defender, but if you could have chosen to watch only the portions of the match for which the Sky Blues were in possession, you would not necessarily have known it.

He was playing a double role; uncompromising defender without the ball, regista with it. He regularly advanced with impeccable timing and dictated City’s passing game from the spaces in between Arsenal’s midfield and front two.

Speaking about the man from Londrina a week later, Guardiola was gushing in his praise. “[Fernadinho] is fast, he's strong in the air and when he has the football in front of him, he sees the passes inside, his switch of play is excellent”, City’s coach said, “He is intelligent to [know when to] go forwards and go backwards, he understands everything.”

Only the best can combine such disparate skills with so much grace, and the game was a perfect picture of why he is so important to balancing out a team that on paper can appear a little top-heavy.

That City’s two back-to-back losses against Palace and Leicester came when the 33-year-old was sidelined is absolutely no coincidence. He is the only irreplaceable part of Pep’s sky-blue jigsaw, the key that turns the cogs in the meticulously oiled machine.

The automated, perfunctory style of play that saw City score the same goal three times against Arsenal is a turnoff to some, a way of removing the fun from the game.

“Fernandinho plays without joy”, wrote highly-regarded Brazilian football writer Juca Kfouri in January, “More than efficient, effective, but serious to the point that he rarely smiles on the pitch.”

Fernandinho

But as Kfouri importantly pointed out, there is another, more significant reason for that apparent joylessness; the traumas and abuse he has suffered in the canary yellow of the Selecao.

Fernandinho was a common denominator between the 7-1 mauling at the hands of Germany in 2014 and Brazil’s exit to Belgium in Russia last summer.

In that quarter-final in Kazan, he scored an early own goal and was deemed at fault for Kevin De Bruyne’s second by the Brazilian football watching public - in a country that loves to appoint a villain after a defeat, he was the one who suffered.

Afterwards, Fernandinho and his family were the targets of a tirade of disgusting racist abuse on social media and as a result he chose not to play for Brazil in the friendlies in September, October and November.

If football has lost a little of the sheen it once had for the 33-year-old, then it can be of little surprise. The fact that he is having another magnificent season after what happened to him is testament to his mental fortitude - off the pitch he is just as tough as he is in the tackle.

So, perhaps he is not playing with joy, at least not in the stereotypical Brazilian sense. Instead though, he seems to be playing with a quiet satisfaction, borne of the knowledge that he is the crucial player in one of the finest sides the Premier League has ever seen.

In Manchester, Fernandinho has found his place. “The biggest legacy I'll maybe leave is the fact that I have re-opened doors for Brazilians at this club," Fernandinho was quoted as saying after his goal against Burnley.

“When I got here, Brazilians were still seen in a negative light,” he continued, referring to the likes of Robinho and Jo, “And now we have four Brazilians of a very high level in the squad, which makes me happy because I've always been respected inside the dressing room, by the fans and everyone. I feel a great affection from all.”

After long conversations with Brazil manager Tite, who holds him in just as high regard as Guardiola does, the City man has now decided to return to the Selecao set-up and will likely be part of the squad that takes part in the Copa America in June and July.

Before that, though, he has bigger mountains to climb. European glory must be the objective for Guardiola and his side now – that they can win at this level is the only thing they have left to prove.

And if City do go on to lift club football’s ultimate prize in Madrid on June 1, you can be absolutely sure that Fernandinho – so central to all their success over the last six years – will be grinning from ear to ear.

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