Captain Vincent Kompany cannot expect an automatic place in the Manchester City side when he returns from injury, manager Pep Guardiola has warned.
But the City boss also says neither John Stones nor Nicolas Otamendi, who have impressed in the Belgian’s absence in central defence this season, will retain their positions by default.
The influential Kompany will soon be back in contention after being sidelined since suffering a thigh injury in last season’s Champions League semi-final loss to Real Madrid.
His imminent availability points to a selection headache for Guardiola, but the former Barcelona and Bayern Munich coach insists that is more of an issue for the players than him.
Speaking at a press conference, Guardiola said: “For me, when he’s ready, how difficult (will it be)? Absolutely nothing.
“They have to compete with each other and we’ll see on the pitch what is the best for that game. That is the best way to arrive in April or May with a chance to fight to win the titles.
“We need the players competing with each other. They have to know if they don’t play good that there’s another one beside me and the next time he is going to play.
“That’s the only way to arrive at the end of the season, fighting. I need Vincent because I know his quality. I need him to put pressure on John Stones, Nico Otamendi, (Aleksandar) Kolarov – all of them.”
In a marked difference from previous seasons, Kompany has so far not been greatly missed, in terms of leadership or defensive qualities.
Stones has particularly caught the eye in his absence, with the £47.5million summer signing from Everton seeming a good fit for Guardiola’s style of playing out from the back.
The England international even looks a potential future captain and the 22-year-old admits wearing the armband is an ambition. So far this season Pablo Zabaleta, David Silva and Joe Hart have taken the responsibility, based on their seniority.
Stones said: “I’d like to be captain one day. Every player wants to be captain of their team and to do so for years to come. It’s a privileged position to be in to captain your club and country.
“These are dreams you dream about when you’re a little boy. You have to deserve the right to be captain but I’d love to be one day and I’ll keep working hard to try to be.”