Fernandinho puts Man City's defensive worries to rest in return to Shakhtar
KHARKIV, Ukraine -- And just like that, Manchester City are back on track.
In theory their trickiest Champions League trip negotiated at a canter, City beat Shakhtar Donetsk 3-0. Plenty of the ball, plenty of goals and a clean sheet for a patched-up defence. On a chilly night in Ukraine, the Norwich horror show felt like a distant memory.
Pep Guardiola's team have a habit of putting things right quickly, and the last time they lost a game -- against Tottenham in the Champions League quarterfinals in April -- it was followed by eight straight wins. On this evidence, you wouldn't bet against the same happening again after that 3-2 defeat at Carrow Road on Saturday.
Losing a game and another centre-back to injury, it has been a difficult few days for Guardiola, but a winning start to their latest quest to win that one elusive trophy has made everything seem a bit more rosy. Sterner challenges lie ahead, but this particular one was made to look easy.
Fernandinho got first crack at solving the defensive crisis that deepened on Tuesday morning with one swipe of John Stones' right boot. A thigh injury suffered while playing a simple pass across the penalty area during training at the Metalist Stadium has ruled him out for at least the next month. It could yet turn out to be longer.
Aymeric Laporte won't play again until the new year after undergoing knee surgery, leaving Nicolas Otamendi as the only fully fit senior centre-back. It is quite a turnaround for the Argentinian, who looked close to leaving in the summer amid interest from Atletico Madrid.
Guardiola has been here before, and Fernandinho was at least given more warning of his role change than Javier Mascherano was when he was shifted from midfield to centre-back for Barcelona in a Champions League tie in Donetsk in April 2011.
"I had no idea I was going to play," recalled Mascherano later. "Pep gives the lineup and he puts me in as a central defender. We had not even spoken about it before."
It didn't do him any harm, and a month later he was playing in the centre of defence and helping Barcelona beat Manchester United in the final. Maybe it's an omen.
It would have been different had City got Harry Maguire. But only valuing the England defender at between £60 million and £65 million, he ended up across town at Old Trafford. Vincent Kompany rejected a pay-as-you-play deal to stay and left to manage Anderlecht, meaning Guardiola -- for now, at least -- will have to get creative.
Speaking at his pre-match news conference on Tuesday, he said he was relishing the challenge, and it is hard to argue. This is a man who was happy to deploy Yaya Toure at centre-back in a Champions League final in 2008. He has done it without centre-backs before.
Guardiola is fond of saying, "more defenders does not mean better defending," and ultimately he will rely on his system to keep the ball out of the net instead of worrying about who can play and who cannot. He doesn't coach tackles, remember?
In Kharkiv -- Shakhtar's home since 2017 because of conflict in Donetsk -- the blueprint worked as well as ever, and by the time Riyad Mahrez made it 1-0 on 24 minutes, the hosts had barely strayed beyond the halfway line. Defending is easy when the ball is forever up at the other end.
Soon it was 2-0, Ilkay Gundogan running on to Mahrez's pass to poke home. In between, Fernandinho, playing against the club he left in 2013, was called on to do some actual defending and made a fine last-ditch tackle to rob Junior Moraes when he had just Ederson to beat.
City have beaten Shakhtar three times in the past 12 months by an aggregate score of 12-0.
The Premier League promises a more thorough examination of Fernandinho the centre-back, and Watford on Saturday are likely to present a physical test for the 34-year-old, even with Troy Deeney sidelined.
Eight of the past 11 league goals City have conceded have come from set pieces, and he will have to watch out for Craig Dawson at corners. Shakhtar couldn't exploit that weakness, but Watford should offer more of a threat.
Preston in the Carabao Cup next week is potentially a chance to see if youngsters Eric Garcia and Taylor Harwood-Bellis are close to offering another alternative, but for now Guardiola will have to cope with Fernandinho and Otamendi. It won't always be as straightforward as this, but so far, so good.