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Yaya 300: City’s ultimate big-game player

Yaya 300: The Ivorian has shown his big-game credentials time and again

Yaya 300: The Ivorian has shown his big-game credentials time and again

Yaya Toure clocked up his 300th Manchester City appearance in the win at West Brom last week. Club journalist Rob Pollard has taken a look back over his distinguished seven-year Blues career.

Turning one of English football’s great unpredictables into an elite European side was never going to be easy. The takeover of Manchester City in 2008 saw a wave of optimism wash over the Club but the serious business of developing a team capable of winning the biggest prizes in the game soon saw reality bite hard. It was going to be a long and difficult road, and given City’s recent history of spectacular failure, there were plenty who doubted it were even possible.

There are differing accounts of when those associated with the Club began to feel there was a serious shift in momentum, when belief City could challenge the best came into being. Some staff cite the 2009-10 season, when a run to the League Cup semi-final couple with a fifth-place finish saw the team achieve a consistency previously unseen, and a new mentality within the corridors of the Etihad was developing. 

For most of the supporters, however, genuine belief replaced hard-wired scepticism the following year when City, playing at Wembley for the first time since its redevelopment, beat United 1-0 in the FA Cup semi-final. Yaya Toure, who had joined from Barcelona nine months earlier, was the man who bagged the winner, placing the ball through Edwin van der Sar’s legs having dispossessed Michael Carrick on the edge of area. The fans, many of whom had never seen City reach a major final, were sent into a state of delirium. This was the clearest signal yet that the Abu Dhabi takeover was destined to lead to success.

In the absence of Carlos Tevez, City’s prolific striker who the team had relied upon time and again during the season, Toure duly delivered the goods. The Ivorian had been signed to help turn City into a trophy-winning force and his goal and performance against United was clear evidence that he was capable of carrying such expectation.

The following month, City returned to Wembley for the final, with 35 years of disappointment hanging over them. Not since the 1976 League Cup had a major trophy found its way to the Blue half of Manchester, but all that changed thanks to Toure’s winner in another 1-0 victory. Roberto Mancini promised to rip down the “35 years” banner hanging inside Old Trafford, and it was Toure, hugely influential throughout the season, who delivered the decisive goal that turned the Italian manager’s promise into reality.

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“The club have loftier ambitions than the FA Cup,” wrote Daniel Taylor in the Observer afterwards. “But for now, it is difficult to understate the sheer importance of Yaya Toure's winning goal in the evolving process that one day will make this kind of euphoria the norm.”

Toure had rooted out 35 years of failure with one emphatic swing of his right foot.

“Scoring those goals at Wembley was amazing - the cup final goal was the best moment of my career,” Toure said recently. "I came here to make history and I did that."

He ended his first season with 12 goals in 51 appearances, helping City qualify for the Champions League for the first time. His passing ability, an underrated facet of his game, brought newfound fluidity to City’s midfield, and his surging runs from deep that would see him leave defenders trailing in his wake offered a weapon few teams could match. He was fast becoming the most feared midfielder in English football and City had in their midst a proven match-winner of the highest order.

The tide was turning and City, propelled by Toure, were most definitely on the rise.

The following season saw City improve still further. Sergio Aguero and Samir Nasri arrived and Mancini’s conservatism turned into all-out attack. They got off to a flyer, winning 12 of their first 14 matches and a first league title in 44 years began to look a real possibility.

But a poor run of form, culminating in a 1-0 defeat to Arsenal, saw City squander their lead and allow United to move eight points clear with six matches remaining. City’s ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory seemingly hadn’t gone away.

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It was going to take something special for City reel United back in. The Old Trafford side began to falter and City hit form again, and in the penultimate match of the season, away at Champions League chasing Newcastle United, in one of the most important matches in the Club’s history, Toure delivered perhaps his most devastating display.

Three points would see City go into the final day at home to QPR knowing a win would seal the title. With the score locked at 0-0, Nigel De Jong came off the bench in place of Nasri, allowing Toure to push further forward, a tactic used to great effect throughout the season.

It paid dividends once again.

With 20 minutes remaining, Toure played a one-two with Aguero on the edge of the box. As the ball came back into his path from the Argentine, Toure curled it first time past Tim Krul from 30 yards to spark scenes of jubilation in the away end. It was the first goal Newcastle had conceded at home in the league in 497 minutes of football, and it was perhaps the most important City had managed all season.

And with 90 seconds remaining, he put the game beyond doubt, controlling Gael Clichy’s ball into the box with his right before firing past Krul to double City’s lead. For the first time all season, the famously cautious City fans sang: “We’re gonna win the league.” A first title in 44 years was in touching distance.

"Yaya is fantastic because he has everything,” Mancini said afterwards. “He is strong, quick, has good technique, and can play in different positions. He is like [Ruud] Gullit for me – a player of that kind.

"It is clear he has class – if he didn't we wouldn't have bought him. He also has big experience as he has played for Barça and has that winning mentality. But he is also a good guy, which is another important asset.

“His first goal was special, like the one he scored in the FA Cup final for us last year. This one may be more important if we can finish the season off.”

Just like he had done 12 months earlier on those two glorious Wembley occasions, Toure had stepped up with City in desperate need of inspiration.

“Yaya's performance was immense,” Joleon Lescott said. “The first one was good, but the second was even better.

“The thing about Yaya is that nothing he does surprises me - because big players do important things at vital times. He scored in the FA Cup semi-final last season, and scored in the Final.

"In training, he said it was going to be him scoring, just with a normal expression on his face. You look at him and see he believes in himself and he believes it is his time to shine. When you get players like that you believe in him yourself because he is so confident. Big players do big things and he did it again."

It was becoming increasingly clear he was a unique midfielder, who, crucially, possessed big-game credentials. Having played in a holding role at Barcelona, with a remit that barely stretched beyond protecting the back four, he had developed into one of the most complete players in the game, with licence to attack at any opportunity. "I have tried to find another Yaya in my squad but there isn't another Yaya," Mancini said of his talisman.

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City secured the title in dramatic circumstances with a 3-2 win over QPR, their sixth-straight victory. Toure assisted the opener for Pablo Zabaleta and ended the season with nine goals in 42 matches. In a star-studded squad full of quality, few were as capable of delivering the goods when it really mattered as Yaya. 

But it is perhaps the 2013/14 season that represents Toure’s peak. City won the Premier League and League Cup, scoring 156 goals in all competitions. Toure scored 20 league goals – 24 in all competitions – becoming only the second central-midfielder (Frank Lampard being the other) to bag 20 in the English top-flight since it was revamped in 1992.

His goal in the League Cup final defied logic; hit first time from 30 yards, it was one of the finest strikes ever seen at Wembley. For large periods of the season, he was completely unplayable, a unique blend of power, vision, technical quality, passing accuracy and set-piece brilliance. There has never been another midfielder quite like him.

And if anyone needed an example of his dominance that season, his injury-time goal in the penultimate game that sealed a 4-0 win over Aston Villa and put City in the precipice of another title was perhaps the archetypal Toure moment. He picked the ball up inside his own half, outpaced a series of Villa defenders before emphatically slamming the ball past Brad Guzan. They did all they could to stop but they simply couldn’t do it. It was a goal that showcased all his ridiculous talent.

"His fourth goal was like watching a 15-year-old against under-12s,” read the BBC’s Match of the Day analysis afterwards. “You just can't catch him.”

City went into the final day of the season two points ahead of Liverpool with a superior goal difference. Unlike in 2012, there were no last-day palpitations, with City easily beating West Ham to land the Club’s fourth league title. It was the first time City’s long history they achieved a league-and-cup double and Toure was the star of the show.

“He's done so much for this club,” Vincent Kompany said. “He's always played brilliantly. He is always an important player - when he does well, the team does well.”

"Not every midfielder scores 20 goals a season,” the then City boss Manuel Pellegrini said. “Yaya Toure is a very important player.”

2013/14 may have represented his peak, but there’s been plenty to savour since. He scored the winner in the League Cup final in 2016, a decisive spot-kick as City edged out Liverpool in a hard-fought game. He played 10 matches as City reached the Champions League semi-final, their best performance to date in Europe’s elite knock-out competition. And then last season, again at Wembley, he was City’s best player as they narrowly lost in the FA Cup semi-final to Arsenal.

 “Probably the biggest positive for Guardiola was Yaya Toure, because I thought he was absolutely sensational - the best player on the pitch,” BBC pundit Jermaine Jenas said after the game. “Toure did everything he could to pick City up and drag them into the final on his own.” Even at 33, he proved capable of shining on the biggest stage.

It’s been a remarkable period, for both Toure and City. A Club desperate for success who lacked the world-class stars needed to make happen found one of the finest midfielders of a generation. Toure’s arrival, along with those of other players, has been the catalyst for City’s five recent trophies.

Toure, not only a leader on the field, has rarely been injured. In his seven full seasons at the Club, he’s managed an average of 43 appearances each campaign. Not only does he readily prove decisive when it matters most, he’s available to call upon at almost all times.

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“It’s always important when you come to a new team and score important goals,” Toure said last season.

“When you talk to the newspapers before you come to do it, they don’t believe you – but when you make it, it’s something special.

“It’s the way I always wanted things to happen. When I was coming here, it was quite difficult because City was in the shadow of United and my target was to change that.

“Me coming, and Silva, Aguero, Mario Balotelli – all those players – we try to make something big happen here.

“From winning the FA Cup, everything started and after that the players start to believe. The staff, the management, everybody start to believe it.

“It was quite brilliant.”

The name Yaya Toure is firmly etched into City’s history. Arriving in England and cast as a mercenary, he has proven to be one of the most important players the Club has ever had. Time and again, in their hour of need, with pressure to achieve proving difficult to handle, it is Toure who has delivered. Legend status isn’t easy to come by but he has undoubtedly achieved it at City. 

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