MANCHESTER, England (AP) — From a 15-match unbeaten start to three losses in 18 days, Manchester City's title defense in the Premier League has unexpectedly hit a wall.
That the slump has coincided with the absence of Fernandinho is surely no coincidence.
The defensive midfielder from Brazil has been one of the unsung heroes in Pep Guardiola's remarkable team, providing protection for the defense and a robust platform for its dynamic attacking play.
A former box-to-box midfielder, Fernandinho chips in with the odd goal, too. It's only when he's not around that he is really appreciated.
City slipped to its first defeat of the season — a 2-0 loss at Chelsea on Dec. 8 — with Fernandinho in the starting lineup, but that was regarded as an anomaly. City dominated the first half at Stamford Bridge, wasting chances before being hit by two second-half goals.
He was missing, injured with a thigh injury, when City lost 3-2 at home to Crystal Palace and 2-1 away to Leicester either side of Christmas, when Guardiola's team put in almost unrecognizable displays.
And there's a good chance he won't be playing on Sunday when City looks to revive its title challenge at Southampton amid the 20th round of fixtures. City has dropped to third place, seven points behind unbeaten Liverpool and one adrift of Tottenham.
Defensively, City has looked fragile in Fernandinho's absence, with his replacements — John Stones, a center back briefly converted to center midfield, and Ilkay Gundogan — not in the Brazilian player's class as a shield for the back four.
Whether it's his positioning, his reading of the game or his astutely timed fouls that stop opposition breakaways, Fernandinho is key to the way City balances attack and defense and has been previously described by Guardiola as "a fundamental player for us" and one of the best midfield anchormen.
Guardiola wanted a back-up for the 33-year-old in the offseason but failed in a bid to sign Italy international Jorginho, who snubbed City's offer in favor of following Maurizio Sarri from Napoli to Chelsea.
City didn't have enough time to land any of its other potential targets — Ruben Neves of Wolverhampton Wanderers was linked — so went into the season with just one proper holding midfielder. It has proved to be the team's big weakness, relying too much on Fernandinho being fit.
Guardiola could turn to Ajax youngster Frenkie De Jong in the next offseason but, more immediately, he will hope Fernandinho returns quickly. The Spanish coach has already reiterated he won't be buying anyone in the January window.
Even if Fernandinho has a chance to return for the Southampton game, Guardiola would be wise to make sure he is fully fit for the home match against Liverpool on Thursday, given the significance of that fixture to the title race.
One thing going in Guardiola's favor in his most testing spell this season is the return of creative midfielders Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva, who could both start at St. Mary's Stadium alongside Gundogan.
Fabian Delph, who has been filling in at left back in place of the injured Benjamin Mendy, is suspended after his red card at Leicester, so Oleksandr Zinchenko should start there.
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Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80