Pep Guardiola welcomed the return of Aymeric Laporte after Manchester City edged a tough contest against Sheffield United 1-0 at Bramall Lane.
Substitute Sergio Aguero tapped in from Kevin De Bruyne’s sublime cross – the Belgian’s 15th assist of the season – to earn City victory, but the biggest boost of the night for the visitors was Laporte’s first start since he suffered a knee injury in late August.
Laporte settled in on the left-side of a back three as Guardiola looked to counter United’s knack of exploiting the channels, and came through 78 minutes unscathed despite suffering one nasty early challenge which earned Mo Besic a yellow card.
“We have missed him a lot,” Guardiola said. “Imagine any of the best teams in the world lose their best central defender.
“It was good news to get 65, 70 minutes in the legs. As a first step it is good and until the end of the season he can help us.”
City have suffered defensively in Laporte’s absence but Guardiola said he was an important part of his side going forward too.
“He has something we don’t have in the squad because of his left foot,” he said. “Many actions in the build up, we don’t have it. Not because the others are not good but because of the left foot.
“For the way we want to play it’s so important, apart from his mentality and character he has all the attributes and when he’s fit for me he’s the best left-central defender in the world.”
Even with him back City were not at their fluid best going forward against a resilient United, with Raheem Sterling frustrated on the left and even De Bruyne missing some passes in the first half.
But the Belgian made no mistake with the inch-perfect cross which Aguero converted 17 minutes from time.
Aguero had not long been on the pitch as a replacement for Gabriel Jesus, who had a first-half penalty saved by Sheffield United goalkeeper Dean Henderson.
The Bramall Lane crowd chanted “England’s number one” throughout the night, and Chris Wilder said it was hard to find a goalkeeper in better form at present.
“He was always going to have to play well, the boys were always going to have to produce eight or nine out of 10 performances and Dean did,” said Wilder, who added that early conversations have taken place over extending Henderson’s loan from Manchester United into a third season.
“He was probably the only one in the ground delighted the penalty was given so he had the opportunity to save it. It was brilliant for him.
“I know there’s a pecking order in that England group but they must be really good goalkeepers to get ahead of him at the moment. His performance tonight, his kicking was brilliant and his positioning was great.
“It was unfortunate he conceded but it was a world-class pass and a fabulous finish.”
Replays suggested Henderson might have strayed off his line before saving Jesus’ penalty, but either way it was yet another failure from the spot from the Brazilian, who has missed six of the penalties he has taken for club and country, and all three this season.
“I have to reflect on it,” Guardiola said when asked if he needed to change his penalty takers. “Always I give confidence to the players to take it but I have to reflect.
“Sergio has missed two and Raheem missed at Wolves so we are not safe at this level and it’s so important because this kind of detail makes the difference.”