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Jun 3, 2014

Key year for Nastasic

Matija Nastasic never truly recovered from last season's error at Chelsea

Towards the end of the 2013-14 season, the press pack gathered inside Manchester City's Carrington training ground media complex to speak to manager Manuel Pellegrini ahead of his side's crucial fixtures. The first question posed every week was the same and usually from the same journalist, too: "Manuel, can we start with the injury situation please?"

Every week the answer varied -- with updates changing regularly as players came back to fitness while others needed time with the doctor. However, there became something of a running joke as Pellegrini would regularly forget to include Matija Nastasic in his list of those unavailable. He'd then be asked about the defender and his response would be akin to a man who regularly took the wrong turning on his way home from work: a little chuckle and "oh, yeah -- and Matija Nastasic."

I didn't go to the news conferences that often last season but it was one of the few occasions that I did that nobody asked about the Serbian defender. So there was a moment of surprise when I did and Pellegrini confirmed that he was back in full training -- so much so that one of the other reporters asked pretty much the same question word-for-word again to confirm what had been said.

It was, however, too near to the end of the season for the defender to get any more playing time, especially since Vincent Kompany and Martin Demichelis had settled well together. The key, though, was that his mysterious injury had cleared.

After a disappointing season for the centre-back, there's been paper talk of various clubs around the football world willing to "take a chance" on the injury-hit Serbian. That assumes the Blues are willing to sell -- and despite facing a restriction on what transfer funds they can spend this summer following the financial fair play rulings, City would be wrong to let him leave.

It's very easy to forget just how young and inexperienced Nastasic is based on his first season at the Etihad. I'll be honest, I winced when I turned on the radio while I was driving home from work and heard that he was making his debut in the starting line-up for City's trip to Real Madrid. He ended up putting in a brilliant performance and probably didn't deserve to be on the losing side.

Throughout his initial season, he pretty much shared the left centre-back role with Joleon Lescott -- a man who was seemingly beginning to be less trusted by then-manager Roberto Mancini following his near-costly error against Queens Park Rangers in May 2012. The truth is somewhere in the middle; Lescott got fewer games because of the impact Nastasic was having while the Serbian didn't hold down that place because there were some games that needed an older, more experienced head.

Given the way he played, at times you'd have thought he was the older, more experienced player; yet there were moments that showed his naivety. On the whole, however, he was outstanding and many were expecting him to flourish throughout 2013-14.

There was always likely to be a dip in form. Nobody could have continued to play at such a high level having totted up as few senior games as Nastasic had at that point (when he arrived at Eastlands, he'd played just 47 times in total) -- the drop was entirely natural. Though its effect was undoubtedly amplified by the fact that he was carried off in a pre-season friendly and missed the beginning of the campaign.

When he had finally got himself back to fitness, there was one turning point that he never seemed to fully recover from for the rest of the season. Despite the blame falling mainly at the feet of Joe Hart, a mix-up between the goalkeeper and the defender at Chelsea that gifted the home side a victory looked like it knocked the stuffing right out of him.

He was in and out of fitness for the whole of the year after that -- though he did end the season with a Premier League and Capital One Cup winners' medal.

Opportunities for Nastasic will be few and far between next season thanks to his intermittent appearances under Pellegrini and the signs pointing towards the Chilean wanting to add another defender to his ranks. The emergence of a solid partnership between Kompany and Demichelis will have reduced his chances further, though that defensive pairing isn't a long term option given the latter's age.

However, the Serbian has time and talent on his side. He showed throughout his debut campaign what he can do and at just 21, there's no pressure for him to be nailing down a first team place with any degree of regularity because he's still years away from his peak.

Next season will be a big year for Nastasic and if the rumours about a move are true, buying clubs are certainly going to have to pay a fair whack for him. If Manchester City have any nous, they'll be keeping him for a very, very long time.