By Greg Stobart at Etihad Stadium
Yaya Toure has come a long way since he was rejected by Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger for being 'average' while on trial eight years ago.
So far, in fact, that there is a genuine concern at Manchester City about how the Premier League leaders will cope in his absence when he leaves for the Africa Cup of Nations next week.
The Ivory Coast international will leave for the tournament and could miss up to eight City matches if his nation live up to their billing as tournament favourites and reach the final in Libreville on February 12.
It is a massive blow to City, who consider Toure as the key player in setting the tempo in games, the man around which the team's style of pay has been built. Having been an ever-present in City's 20 Premier League games so far, despite Roberto Mancini's fondness for rotation, he is an untouchable.
The 28-year-old's metronomic passing and physical power has dominated midfield battles on an almost weekly basis – and he once again highlighted his importance to the club's title charge with a game-changing performance as City beat Liverpool 3-0 at the Etihad Stadium on Tuesday night.
The scoreline may suggest a comfortable victory to take City three points clear of rivals Manchester United at the Premier League summit, but in reality it was a generally even game, with the major chances evenly shared between the sides.
Terrific Toure | The midfielder was superb as City swatted Liverpool aside
It was Toure, however, who made the difference between a tight, nail-biting encounter and a comfortable victory. In the 33rd minute, he added to Sergio Aguero's opener by heading the hosts into a two-goal lead with the help of the underside of the crossbar after good movement in the penalty area.
Toure's real value was evident moments after City were reduced to 10 men in the 73rd minute as Gareth Barry was shown a second yellow card for an innocuous looking tackle on Daniel Agger.
Running from the halfway line, the giant midfielder opened his legs and powered through the midfield before inviting a clumsy challenge from Martin Skrtel inside the penalty area. It only needed the slightest of contact for Toure to tumble and James Milner made no mistake from the spot to secure the points.
|CITY'S TOURE TROUBLE
The games could miss and how
|GAMES TOURE WILL DEFINITELY MISS
||Liverpool (H) (League Cup)
||Liverpool (A) (League Cup)
|IF IVORY COAST REACH THE LAST EIGHT...
|IF IVORY COAST REACH THE SEMI-FINALS...|
||Aston Villa (A)|
|IF IVORY COAST ARE FINALISTS
|Feb 16||Porto (A) (Europa League)|
Then you remember that the former Barcelona man has a knack of scoring important goals in key moments of games, having already cemented his place in the club's history with the winning strikes in the FA Cup semi-final and final last season as City won their first major trophy for 35 years.
Speaking in the bowels of the Etihad Stadium on Tuesday night, Mancini made little attempt to disguise how much his side will miss Toure as they prepare for key games without him, including two League Cup clashes with Liverpool and league matches against the likes of Tottenham and Everton.
“We will lose Yaya after Sunday's game against United,” Mancini said. “For this reason, January is a very important month. If we can stay on top after January, then we have a good chance.
“I try to find another Yaya in the squad but there is not another Yaya. For us, he is a very important player.”
Toure himself is more positive, insisting “City will cope” despite admitting feeling "guilty and confused" about abandoning his club as they fight on four fronts – the Premier League, the FA Cup, the League Cup and the Europa League. “I will not be away for a long time and I want to come back and help the club win the league," he added.
But City will learn how to play, and win, without Toure when he and older brother Kolo jet off to the Africa Cup of Nations in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea.
Thanks to Abu Dhabi petrodollars, City will not be short of options to replace Toure. Owen Hargreaves is closing in on a return to action while the likes of Milner, Nigel de Jong and Samir Nasri can all slot into a central midfield role alongside Barry.
Those players are all capable of taking their chance, but Mancini's concerns show just how big a hole Toure's absence will leave in the squad. Toure is a fierce patriot and will hope that he does not return to Manchester until mid-February – and City's success in the meantime will depend on how they can fill his considerable shoes.
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