Talented, brave and technically superb: No surprise Oleksandr Zinchenko is a target for Arsenal and West Ham

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 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

It is a quirk of football’s history that even its most brilliant, most celebrated and most iconic teams are littered with players that meet none of those criteria, men who, while fine professionals that ended their careers with shelves full of trophies and medals, were undoubtedly remarkable beneficiaries of time, place and circumstance.

Stephane Guivarc’h remains the modern reference point for the genre, famously leading the line at the ’98 World Cup for a legendary France team that, by Euro 2000, was choosing between Thierry Henry, Nicolas Anelka and David Trezeguet at centre-forward, but there have been plenty of others tarred with the same brush since.

Some may seem deserving of it and others less so, depending largely on how highly you rated Joan Capdevilla or Oleguer, how jammy you considered Jesper Blomqvist or Massimo Oddo, and whether you can recall if Kleberson was actually half-decent until he signed for Manchester United.

Until six months ago, many would have put Oleksandr Zinchenko in the same camp.

At Manchester City, in the most expensive football squad ever assembled, made up almost exclusively of marquee signings with a couple of reserves goalkeepers and academy graduates (one of whom is Phil Foden) thrown in, Zinchenko does not fit the mould.

The Ukrainian, a midfielder by trade, arrived unheralded in 2016 from Russian side Ufa in a deal worth less than £2million, was immediately loaned to PSV and returned a year later to gradually rather stumble his way into a semi-regular role in the side as makeshift left-back, a position which has remained a problem throughout Pep Guardiola’s reign (Fabian Delph was perhaps his most reliable predecessor).

By the end of last season, Zinchenko had made exactly 100 appearances for City, won three Premier League titles, five domestic cups and started in a Champions League final. Yet, it was still fairly difficult to offer up a fair assessment of his ability, or rather, few outside the Etihad tried especially hard to.

A reliable, adaptable squad player, fortunate to be playing under one of the game’s great managers in one of English football’s most dominant teams? Or a weak link that said manager seemed keen to upgrade upon almost every time a transfer window opened? Probably, some combination of both.

And then, on February 24, Russia invaded Ukraine.

At just 25 years of age, Zinchenko became, within the sporting world at least, a de facto spokesperson for his nation, thrust unwittingly into the spotlight as its most recognisable footballer, who just happened to be playing for the best team in the planet’s most followed league.

He wanted to return to his homeland to fight but was convinced by family that his presence and platform here could be more powerful, epitomised in that iconic image of the Premier League trophy wrapped in the blue and yellow of the Ukrainian flag on the final day of the season.

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

He continues to shoulder the burden in the most dignified manner imaginable, speaking with raw emotion and at times a raw anger no doubt amplified by his own experience in fleeing war in the Donbas as a teenager.

“Everyone needs to live in peace and we need to stop the war altogether,” he said after Sunday’s heartbreaking World Cup playoff defeat to Wales. “Today it’s Ukraine, but who knows tomorrow? We need to stay together.”

With the appreciation of Zinchenko the man has come a belated appreciation of Zinchenko the footballer, a string of acclaimed performances, including in the dramatic Premier League finale against Aston Villa and in Ukraine’s emotional win over Scotland, sending his stock soaring.

Suddenly, there is recognition of a superb technician and creator, a brave ball carrier, and alert, athletic defender, whose versatility is such that some of the clubs queuing to take him off City’s hands as he enters the final year of his contract - including Arsenal and West Ham - have him earmarked as a target in different positions.

“Oleks has showed me the importance and value of being a good guy,” Guardiola said back in 2019. As his human qualities have been thrust into the wider spotlight in recent months, they have, at last, dragged those he possesses on a football pitch into it as well.

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