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 By David Mooney

Ilkay Gundogan return a boost for Manchester City and Pep Guardiola

ESPN FC's Craig Burley says Pep Guardiola will know the pressure is on at Manchester City.
ESPN FC's Craig Burley says Pep Guardiola will know the pressure is on at Manchester City.

It may have been an ill-advised friendly to play on Tuesday, but there was a positive to take from Manchester City's 1-0 loss to Girona. Despite the fears of many fans that a key player would be left injured, the opposite would be true.

The match in the north of Spain marked the first appearance for Ilkay Gundogan, roughly eight months after he suffered a knee injury in the early stages of the 2-0 win over Watford in December 2016. He may have only been on the field for 19 minutes in the friendly, but it marks the beginning of the end of his journey back to the first team.

The German was just beginning to get settled into City's team when he was struck down by injury. He was a key player in two of the club's best performances in Pep Guardiola's first season in charge, helping to turn around the slump that had struck after an excellent opening to the 2016-17 campaign. He scored a brace in both games, too -- a thumping 4-0 success at West Brom and an impressive 3-1 victory over Barcelona.

In each, the 26-year-old showed off qualities that City have been missing in his absence. Not only was he prepared to put in the gritty hard work, closing down opponents and breaking up the play, but he was very easy on the eye when he or his teammates had the ball, too. There are clearly more skilful players in the squad, but none of them have the box-to-box quality that Gundogan does.

It wasn't unusual to see him tracking his runner into his own area one minute, before breaking into the opposition box to support Sergio Aguero, Kevin De Bruyne or Raheem Sterling the next. He was proving to be one of the major assets in helping the team's cohesion, linking defence to attack by providing excellent cover or support, depending on how the play was going.

For years, this was a job done by a combination of Fernandinho and Yaya Toure. Of course, the latter is very highly regarded for his role in City's success since his arrival in 2010, but at 34 it's obvious the club can't rely on him to continue at the top level for too much longer. The Ivorian has begun to slow down, noticeably in the faster-paced games of last season. They were beginning to pass him by, something that has rarely happened throughout his time in England.

Fernandinho, also heading towards the twilight of his career at 32, has been performing a similar role but his creative play isn't up to the level that Gundogan can provide when in that position. This isn't to say there's no room for him and Toure, but rather that the option to play with a slightly younger and more mobile central midfielder would have been a good one to have at times last season.

Pep Guardiola manager of Manchester City congratulates Ilkay Gundogan
Ilkay Gundogan's return to action will increase Pep Guardiola's options in midfield.

For large spells of 2016-17, it felt like City's defence and attack were working independently of each other, despite Guardiola's insistence that scoring or conceding goals was a team thing. There were also long spells where it looked like the Catalan's side could pass and pass, but get nowhere with it, just missing that little bit of nous to cause their opposition problems.

Gundogan can provide that. It was his movement off the ball, his vision and passing on it, and his ability to drift into space to be in the right place at the right time that helped to land City their most memorable performance and result of the campaign, toppling Barcelona at the Etihad.

The German was only just beginning to settle into City's midfield when he suffered a cruciate knee ligament injury last December. It may feel like he's back to square one, having to find his feet in what's almost a brand new team again. There's been a mini-revolution in both the style of play and with how the manager sets the side up since Gundogan was last in the starting lineup.

This season, there's a real chance City's team will look top-heavy at times, as if Guardiola is doing his best to cram as many attacking players into his XI as possible. There's still a long way to go on the road to recovery for Gundogan to be regularly in the manager's thoughts, but when he's back the midfielder could be the perfect fit as the man who anchors the whole team together.

He can get involved with the slick passing football that Guardiola wants to see in the attack, but he can also put in a dogged and determined shift to protect the defenders behind him.

It was a welcome return to first team action on Tuesday, and when he's back to full fitness, Gundogan will be like a brand new signing for the club.

David Mooney is ESPN FC's Manchester City blogger. Twitter: @DavidMooney

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