Yaya Toure back from the brink and deserves new Man City deal
When Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola told reporters at a news conference that Yaya Toure wouldn't play for him again until he apologised for previous comments, it seemed like the midfielder had kicked his last ball for the club in their 1-0 Champions League playoff second leg win over Steaua Bucharest in August.
It felt like a night of farewells. The City fans had said goodbye to Joe Hart that evening, given a final start by the manager ahead of a loan to Torino, and it appeared the same for Toure.
The Ivorian hadn't featured in any of City's other games at the beginning of the season, so when Guardiola demanded publicly that he say sorry roughly a month later, it looked like the door was being closed on his career at the Etihad. It seemed a sad and acrimonious end to one of the most influential players in the club's history.
It's to Toure's immense credit, then, that he's reportedly on the verge of earning a new contract. His deal ends this summer and he's understood to have had offers from elsewhere but he seems to want to stay.
It's strange how Toure has had to work harder than others to get the recognition he deserves at City. Despite having spent seven years controlling midfields, displaying expert passing skills and scoring a host of goals -- from tap-ins to 35-yard screamers -- he has consistently had to shake off accusations of laziness and has been dogged by off-the-field controversy. "Cake-gate" was the most notorious.
A minority of fans got so hung up on what he or his agent Dimitry Seluk were reported to have said that they were ready to get rid, regularly citing a lack of respect. Never mind that he was the backbone of the Sheikh Mansour era success, playing a significant role in every single honour won since joining the club in 2010. He scored vital goals in semifinals, finals and in crucial league matches to secure five major trophies in his seven seasons.
For a time this season, City didn't miss him. They began Guardiola's reign with 10 straight wins and they were playing free-flowing, attractive, and attacking football on a weekly basis. On paper, the midfield looked lightweight -- but out on the pitch, it was nothing of the sort.
When Toure issued his apology and put the ball back into his manager's court, completely out of the blue, many suspected that Guardiola still wouldn't pick the midfielder. But they were wrong, and about a fortnight later he was back in the starting lineup, scoring both of the goals in City's 2-1 victory at Crystal Palace.
Ever since, he's been an integral part of the squad. Of course, his body doesn't work like it used to and he can't scythe through opponents in top gear like he did at 29 or 30, but that was only ever one small facet to his game. Those driving runs past four or five defenders are what everybody remembers and they became synonymous with Toure, but he should instead be remembered for what he's done all season since returning to Guardiola's set-up.
When the midfielder is on the pitch, City generally have control of the match. His range of passing is exemplary and is just as comfortable with a set of quick one-twos as he is clipping a ball out to the flank or driving it 60-yards to switch the play. He dictates the speed of the game and dominates the middle, able to steal back possession and find a teammate, and he knows when to increase or lower the tempo.
City's reliance on Toure in the past is because there is no other player like him. He's one of a kind, a unique box-to-box midfielder that is both enforcer and playmaker. The only difference recently is that he is starting to have to pick and choose his battles -- at 34, he's a veteran of the game and can't be expected to run the show twice a week for 10 months.
Any suggestions that he didn't fit a Guardiola style team, which came up because the Catalan once sold Toure at Barcelona, are surely now rubbished. Not only has the midfielder proved his critics wrong again this campaign, but he's done enough to warrant a new deal -- and few City fans would argue against it.
The club can't continue to be reliant on him, but it's crazy to think there couldn't be a place for him in next season's squad.
David Mooney is ESPN FC's Manchester City blogger. Twitter: @DavidMooney