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MANCHESTER, England – The prospect of Manchester City going into one of the biggest games in the club's history without Yaya Toure in the starting lineup would once have seemed unthinkable.
Toure has been at the heart of City's growth as a major force in English soccer since 2010, with his masterful technique, driving runs and scoring ability from midfield making him a stalwart of the team.
But times are changing.
Toure was on the bench at the start of City's 1-0 win over Paris Saint-Germain on Tuesday, a result that sent the Premier League side into the Champions League semifinals for the first time. He came on in the 84th minute, when PSG's chances were virtually over.
City manager Manuel Pellegrini said Toure didn't start because he is on his way back from a knee injury, but that likely wouldn't have stopped City from playing the Ivorian in the past.
Toure, it seems, is no longer essential to City. He can be a game-changer, but he can also be a liability and has been criticized for his work rate.
City looks more solid and has better shape in central midfield when Fernandinho and Fernando play as a pair, giving better protection to the defense. It is no surprise that Nicolas Otamendi and Eliaquim Mangala — two oft-criticized center backs — had one of their best games for City against PSG, given they had two midfield screeners in front of them and were less exposed.
Toure has also played in the No. 10 role, as one of three attacking midfielders behind the central striker — usually Sergio Aguero — but this results in one or both of City's playmakers, David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne, playing out wide where they can be less effective.
Pellegrini has a big decision to make for the semifinals: If Toure is fully fit, does he start? Would it be in City's interests?
City has to start thinking about life after Toure, whose contract expires at the end of next season. He turns 33 next month and has been linked with a move in the offseason.
Toure's outspoken agent, Dimitri Seluk, told British media that Toure would leave City in the offseason if he is not offered a three-year deal.
"I will not let Yaya waste a year at City," Seluk is quoted as saying in The Sunday Mirror. "I will not let City keep him because, in one more year, his chances of joining another big club will be smaller.
"I will go to FIFA. I will write to them and tell them that we will buy Yaya out of his contract. We can do this. It is an option. This is not a threat. I promise you that Yaya will leave City this summer one way or another if they don't offer him a new contract."
Responding to these comments on Monday, Pellegrini said Toure's future will be decided at the end of the season. It seems increasingly likely that Toure will be following Pellegrini out the door at Etihad Stadium.
Also clouding Toure's future at City is the fact that Pep Guardiola will be replacing Pellegrini as manager in June. Guardiola was in charge at Barcelona when the Spanish club sold Toure to City in 2010.
Toure arguably has been one of the greatest players in City's history, a key figure in the club's most successful era. But he might only have a few games left in the blue shirt.
And maybe not the games he really wants to be playing in.