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Man City star Joao Cancelo has become one of the best full-backs in the world

When Gary Neville, acting as commentator for Sky Sports, chose Joao Cancelo as the man of the match, he must have felt a nostalgic feeling for what he could have been.

When Neville was coach of Valencia in 2016, he had urged Manchester United to give this outstanding young winger a kick.

United weren’t convinced and now here he was in Manchester City blue tearing his old club to shreds.

Joao Cancelo gave Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Man United a steamy moment in Saturday's derby

Joao Cancelo gave Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Man United a steamy moment in Saturday’s derby

The Portuguese left-back throws a cross during an outstanding performance at Old Trafford

The Portuguese left-back throws a cross during an outstanding performance at Old Trafford

The Portuguese left-back throws a cross during an outstanding performance at Old Trafford

Cancelo produced one of the most comprehensive performances from a full-back you’ll likely see in the Premier League, underlining precisely why Pep Guardiola now trusts him in almost every game.

The Portuguese not only neutralized United’s limited attacking threat, but also ran Aaron Wan-Bissaka down City’s left, setting up both of his goals in a 2-0 victory that could easily have been 6-0.

United only managed 73 passes in the last third of the entire game. Cancelo only managed 46. Rarely, if ever, has a United team been so completely outmatched in a Premier League game.

Guardiola has favored Cancelo over Oleksandr Zinchenko on the left back for much of the season. It’s not hard to see why: The 27-year-old is arguably the best left-back in English football.

You could also argue that he is one of the best right-backs. Skills are transferable and it is Cancelo’s natural position. His versatility works very well for Guardiola.

Cancelo (right) when a Valencia player in 2015 - spent four seasons with the Spanish club

Cancelo (right) when a Valencia player in 2015 - spent four seasons with the Spanish club

Cancelo (right) when a Valencia player in 2015 – spent four seasons with the Spanish club

Gary Neville coached Cancelo for just four months, but wanted Man United to sign him

Gary Neville coached Cancelo for just four months, but wanted Man United to sign him

Gary Neville coached Cancelo for just four months, but wanted Man United to sign him

Joao Cancelo vs Man United tactile map

Joao Cancelo vs Man United tactile map

Joao Cancelo vs Man United pass map

Joao Cancelo vs Man United pass map

Joao Cancelo’s excellent display against Man United is shown on his tactile map (left) and passes (right: black succeeds, yellow does not)

There were times, especially during his first season at the Etihad in 2019-20, when Cancelo didn’t seem like a £ 60 million player, the most expensive right-back in history.

Even last season, despite being a regular starter in both the Premier League and Europe, Guardiola left with Zinchenko as a left-back in the Champions League final against Chelsea, with Cancelo as an unused substitute.

But things have been reversed this season. Now the Portuguese player is inescapable, completely at ease on both sides of the City defense and even plays a hybrid role in midfield when necessary.

“He’s an athletic machine, he’s a brilliant running back, a beautiful running back with the ball and he’s also a tough guy,” Neville said enthusiastically after Saturday’s derby.

‘He is strong, he is brave in his defense, he affects the game in defense and in attack, and he is delivering what I thought he would do.

“ He played as a left-back and he plays just as well as a right-back. You can play in the midfield. It makes this City team better and that’s a difficult thing to do. ‘

Cancelo has become Pep Guardiola's first option as a left-back in the first part of this season

Cancelo has become Pep Guardiola's first option as a left-back in the first part of this season

Cancelo has become Pep Guardiola’s first option as a left-back in the first part of this season

He played a major role in helping City win the Premier League last season and is seen alongside Ruben Dias and Bernardo Silva at trophy celebrations.

He played a major role in helping City win the Premier League last season and is seen alongside Ruben Dias and Bernardo Silva at trophy celebrations.

He played a major role in helping City win the Premier League last season and is seen alongside Ruben Dias and Bernardo Silva at trophy celebrations.

But Cancelo (left) got stuck on the bench when City lost to Chelsea in the Champions League final.

But Cancelo (left) got stuck on the bench when City lost to Chelsea in the Champions League final.

But Cancelo (left) got stuck on the bench when City lost to Chelsea in the Champions League final.

I cancel this season

Premier League only

Matches: eleven

Goals: 0

Attend: 2

Success of the duel: 50.83%

Address success: 65.22%

Interceptions: 26

Recoveries: 63

Dribble successfully: 51.85%

Passing precision: 85.61%

Courtesy of Opta

Neville only managed Valencia for four months, but it was enough to realize the quality of Cancelo, who was then 22 years old.

He was her worst critic at the time, cursing himself even after making a mistake in training.

Neville had to make Cancelo realize that mistakes were part of soccer’s learning curve and his innate talent would be enough to prevail.

Neville believed that Cancelo was good enough for Manchester United, but Louis van Gaal hadn’t signed Matteo Darmian in the right-back position in a long time and they also had Antonio Valencia, so no move materialized.

His defeat has proven to be a win for City, with Cancelo arriving there through a season on loan at Inter Milan and a season at Juventus, where the hard hitting school of Italian soccer made him even tougher.

But Cancelo was pretty rough anyway, his early life was affected by tragedy.

He was 18 years old and sitting next to his brother Pedro, then nine, in the back seat when his mother Filomena was killed in a car accident near Lisbon in January 2013.

The two boys escaped with minor injuries, but the loss of their mother caused Cancelo, then at Benfica, to almost give up football entirely.

He stayed away from training for a month, but in a candid conversation with his father, José saw Joao return to his club with a new mission to make his mother proud.

Cancelo was 18 when he saw his mother Filomena die tragically in a car accident

Cancelo was 18 when he saw his mother Filomena die tragically in a car accident

Cancelo was 18 when he saw his mother Filomena die tragically in a car accident

‘I’m dead inside, but I’m going to be strong and I’ll give you the greatest pride in the world,’ he wrote on social media at the time.

That inspiration has taken him far. As he told ESPN Brazil earlier this year: ‘As I often say, my mother saw me be born and I saw my mother die.

‘That’s why I say that each title, each individual achievement is all dedicated to my mother because, as I said, she is the woman and the person in my life.’

There have already been many achievements. Cancelo won Serie A with Juventus in 2018-19 and the Premier League with City last season.

He has played 30 times for Portugal, but also suffered bad luck. He did not make the final cut for the 2018 World Cup and was forced to withdraw from Euro 2020 after testing positive for Covid-19 two days before his first match.

Cancelo points to the sky after scoring for Portugal against Israel in summer

Cancelo points to the sky after scoring for Portugal against Israel in summer

Cancelo points to the sky after scoring for Portugal against Israel in summer

But at 27, all the evidence points to a player entering his prime and Cancelo will be reluctant to give up his starting job at City even if Guardiola wants to rotate.

After all, he stands out among City defenders when it comes to tackles and aerial duels won, interceptions and ball recovery this season.

Cancelo’s two assists at Old Trafford came just days after he scored three goals in a Champions League win over Club Brugge.

Furthermore, Guardiola is unlikely to eliminate him any time soon because the City manager has successfully trained him in an indispensable part of his setup.

In addition to his comfort as a left-back or right-back, Cancelo has the ability to shift to midfield when City are building one of their moves, providing an extra man to overload opponents.

Cancelo celebrates a goal with his compatriot Cristiano Ronaldo during his time at Juventus

Cancelo celebrates a goal with his compatriot Cristiano Ronaldo during his time at Juventus

Cancelo celebrates a goal with his compatriot Cristiano Ronaldo during his time at Juventus

Time and time again, United were outnumbered as City advanced on Saturday. Once his attack gained momentum, Cancelo was able to find space to the left and get behind the United defense with a quick pass.

The results were devastating. Not only did Cancello deliver the low cross that Eric Bailly cut to his own goalkeeper David de Gea for the first game, but his floating pass chose Bernardo Silva to score his second after Harry Maguire and Luke Shaw disconnected.

All in a day’s work for a player whose life and career has been marked by tragedy, self-reprimand and the uncertainty of not always playing.

But now Cancelo is certainly keeping the promise he made to his mother to be the best.

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