News From Manchester: Oleksandr Zinchenko transfer could present Pep Guardiola with biggest Man City challenge yet – Alex Brotherton

While there is not the same level of discontent from players as there was last summer – it's believed that four key players wanted to leave – there are a few members of Pep Guardiola's squad who have been linked with moves away.

The futures of Ilkay Gundogan, Gabriel Jesus and Raheem Sterling are all up in the year, with their contracts set to expire in a little over a year's time. Last week there were widespread reports that Gundogan was flying to Madrid to conduct transfer negotiations, although it turned out that he was actually flying to Copenhagen – and then Rome – to get married.

This week, the latest City player to be linked with a move away is Oleksandr Zinchenko. While he played a lesser role in City's Premier League triumph than his aforementioned teammates, he would arguably be the player hardest to replace.

Since becoming a member of City's first team squad in the summer of 2017 – he spent the 2016/17 season on loan at PSV Eindhoven – Zinchenko has never made more than 20 Premier League appearances in a single season. Nevertheless, he has managed to play important roles in City's four Premier League-winning campaigns during that time.

He was particularly important in 2018/19 when, having featured in just three of City's opening 20 league games, he started 11 of their last 12 as the Blues put together an incredible 14-game winning run to pip Liverpool to the title.

Last season after a similarly slow start, he was a near permanent fixture in the team that won 15 consecutive games between December and March. By the end of the campaign he had established himself as Guardiola's preferred left-back in the Champions League, putting in one of the all-time great individual defensive performances in the semi-final second leg defeat of Paris Saint-Germain.

This season Zinchenko again saw his minutes limited by the brilliance of Cancelo, but with the injuries piling up he featured in City's final seven matches to help push the Blues over the line.

As a half-time substitute, the Ukrainian helped change the game in City's favour against Aston Villa on the final day. City had lacked width and drive in wide areas, but Zinchenko's introduction, coupled with Cancelo shifting across to right-back, created more space in the centre for the likes of Ilkay Gundogan to exploit.

What Zinchenko represents as a player is rare, and therefore hard to replace. He is a high quality player capable of playing in multiple positions, willing to do whatever is necessary for the good of the team.

His attitude and motivation to improve is top-notch – lots of players would kick up a fuss about not playing as much as they'd like. Instead Zinchenko has made sure that he is ready when called upon, meaning that Guardiola can have a high-quality and reliable player waiting in the wings when needed.

Above all else though, he is a thoroughly decent human being and well-like member of the dressing room. He has taken time out to speak to and offer match tickets to Ukrainian refugees; one Ukrainian youngster watched the final game of the season from Zinchenko's hospitality box at the Etihad.

The support Zinchenko's teammates – and City fans – have given him in recent months shows just how loved he is at the club.

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