LONDON • Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola said it took defender John Stones a lot longer than expected to rediscover his best form but he praised the Englishman’s perseverance after their 2-0 League Cup win over Manchester United on Wednesday.
The centre-back has struggled with injuries and poor form in recent campaigns but has found his rhythm this season, forging a strong partnership with Portuguese defender and City’s summer signing Ruben Dias.
Stones, 26, opened the scoring in the second half against United – his first goal in three years for the club – before Brazilian Fernandinho added another to send the holders into the final for the fourth straight year.
“All credit for him (Stones). In a long career, you always have ups and downs. Unfortunately, he struggled longer than we expected and he expected – but his comeback is absolutely down to him,” said Guardiola, who had as many as six first-team players sidelined with Covid-19.
“He made another outstanding performance. But the most important thing he has been able to do – something he has struggled with the past three or four years – is play four, five, six games in a row. This is so important.”
Stones, who faced questions about his future last season, said his resurgence was down to hard work.
“I’m trying to play as many games as I can… give everything for the shirt. Staying true to myself, to what I can do and what I can improve on,” he told Sky Sports.
“Playing in these big games is something I thrive on, the team thrives on. I’m trying to improve as much as I can.”
City meet Tottenham Hotspur at Wembley in the final on April 25.
Guardiola’s men now have the chance to equal Liverpool’s record of winning four successive League Cups from 1981 to 1984.
“I know the Carabao (League) Cup is not the Champions League but four times a row is incredible,” he added. “I’m so impressed with the quality of this team.”
4 Manchester United have been eliminated from all four semi-finals they have contested under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer (two League Cups, FA Cup and Europa League).
If they were to achieve that feat, Stones and Dias could be crucial.
City have now kept nine clean sheets in the 11 games Stones has started this season.
As a pair, they conceded their first goal together in over 800 minutes in stoppage time during Sunday’s 3-1 Premier League win at Chelsea. Their record now stands at one goal against in 900 minutes.
Spaniard Guardiola seems to have finally created a formidable centre-back pairing to solve his side’s defensive issues.
Last season, City conceded 35 goals in 38 Premier League matches, more than their 2017-18 (27) and 2018-19 (23) title-winning seasons. As it stands, they have conceded the fewest goals (13) in the league, although they have also played two games fewer than leaders Liverpool.
But as a metric, goals conceded is of only limited use. City are so good at retaining possession that most opponents do not have enough of the ball to cause them problems, as United found out themselves.
“It’s not psychological, sometimes you meet good teams in the semis,” said Solskjaer, whose side also fell to City at this stage of the competition last season and who have now also lost a fourth semi-final in the past two seasons.
“We met the best team in England and for me we didn’t have enough today.
“But we’re getting closer. This is a much better Manchester United compared to a year ago in those semis, that’s positive but not enough.”
Former United midfielder Roy Keane agreed that the Red Devils are still “a little bit short”, adding that talisman Bruno Fernandes must do more in big games.
The Portuguese midfielder has made a big impression after joining from Sporting Lisbon last year, with 27 goals and 17 assists overall, but had a quiet night.
“It’s not easy winning football trophies. Fernandes has had praise for the last few months and people have been comparing him to (Eric) Cantona,” Keane told Sky Sports.
“The top players turn up in the big occasions. And that’s what the Cantonas used to do. That’s where this team are a little bit short.
“They probably need one or two more players to come into this squad.”
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS