The ‘dog eat dog’ fight which could dictate Man City’s Champions League final chances

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Kyle Walker recalls the pain and it wasn’t the kind many a left winger has experienced when they have found themselves in a race against him, legs burning as Manchester City and England’s roadrunner accelerated past them. This was the sense of rejection. Pep Guardiola had recalibrated his team, altered the role of the right-back and the footballer who had played more times in defence for the Catalan than anyone else was suddenly deemed redundant. “He cannot do it,” Guardiola said bluntly.

“Did it hurt? Of course it did,” Walker reflected. “I can’t sit here and lie to you and say it didn’t hurt. Of course it did. You start to doubt yourself but you have to go back to basics to what you are good at, what he bought you for and prove him wrong and that is what I have done. Sometimes certain opinions in football, you don’t always agree with, but for what he has done for me and for Man City in the last six years, has been nothing short of tremendous.”

Some six weeks after Guardiola’s damning appraisal, it may be no exaggeration to say his chances of winning his third, and City’s first, Champions League rest with Walker.

He has been recalled, restored to prominence, summoned for a specialist task. Guardiola could reinvent Walker’s friend John Stones as part full-back, part midfielder, but there are jobs that call for an out-and-out defender. Walker seems the man for the unenviable assignment. He was Kylian Mbappe’s direct opponent in a World Cup quarter-final, Gabriel Martinelli’s in a Premier League title decider and Vinicius Junior’s in twin Champions League ties.

Stop Vinicius and City may be bound for Istanbul. But then, as Trent Alexander-Arnold can testify from bitter experience, halting him can border on the impossible.


Walker sounded unfazed. “Obviously it is a personal battle where you are coming up against one of the best players in the world but I have faced many over the years who have been just as good as him,” he said. “But I think he is in the best form of his life.” That was demonstrated in the Bernabeu last week when the Brazilian scored a superlative goal; Walker was blameless for it, however, and acquitted himself well.

Carlo Ancelotti, rarely one for hyperbole, branded Vinicius the world’s best player after his evisceration of Liverpool. The same description could be applied to another Walker went mano a mano with.

“Like Mbappe when I played him in the World Cup, you have to give him respect they deserve but you are not going to say, ‘Go on, walk through and score,’” Walker said. “I am representing Manchester City, the ambition for this club is massive so if I can’t compete with these top players from Real Madrid, Paris Saint-Germain, Chelsea or whoever, I shouldn’t be here, I shouldn’t be sat in this chair talking to you, I need to make sure I come against the best and I can deal with the best.”

He embraced Vinicius after the first leg, a gesture of admiration that came with a warning. “I went to hug him because he tried to rainbow flick me, so it was like, ‘please don’t try that again – I don’t want to become a meme,’” he explained. The Brazilian has a reputation as an agent provocateur but Walker sounded unworried.

“If someone is trash talking, it doesn’t really bother me,” he insisted. “I have been through things in my life that are more difficult than people trying to wind me up and get a reaction out of me. We’ve seen a few clips of him going down easily and asking for yellow cards but it’s part and parcel of the game. Let’s not take his football away, he’s a top player.” So there may be another hug. “I will give him the respect he deserves [after the final whistle], but before then it is dog eat dog,” he said.

Or, perhaps, dog race dog. There is a timelessness to Walker. Apart from back-up goalkeeper Scott Carson, he is the oldest player in the City squad, just as he has been England’s oldest in their last two tournaments. He will turn 33 on the final day of the Premier League season and yet the years have not blunted his pace.


“I am not old,” he argued. “I still feel great, I still feel fit. I probably have to say a big thanks to my mum and dad for the genetics. Some players do start to slow down, but I think one of the lads in sports science said I hit 37.5 [kilometres per hour] the other day in the speed thing.”

He is not City’s only sprinter. Training at City does not consist of 100m races, but one would be worth watching. The 52-goal forward Erling Haaland has got the better of many an opposing defender this season. A teammate reckons he could beat him. “Both of us take a bit of time to get up to speed, but I think Erling is very, very quick,” Walker said. “But I’d still have to back myself…”

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