Asked whether he could yet stay at Manchester City beyond this summer when his current deal ends, Yaya Toure reflected for a moment.
As he pondered for the right response, for words laced with diplomacy as well as honesty, Pep Guardiola quietly creeped up on his left shoulder.
The towering Toure was in full flow, holding court and unaware of the City manager’s presence until laughter filled the air at the untimely encounter en route to their post-match meal.
“He said next game I’m not going to play – you’ll get me in trouble,” bellowed Toure, sharing a warm embrace with Guardiola, who earlier had praised him for his “exceptional” quality in Sunday’s crucial 2-1 Premier League win over Arsenal.
“He looks like a boy, he played awesome,” said the City chief, adding “now we have time to discuss” Toure’s future.
That is something that never seemed on the agenda after Guardiola refused to pick the 33-year-old midfielder until his agent Dimitri Seluk had apologised for inflammatory comments.
An appearance in the Champions League qualifier against Steaua Bucharest in August was his sole contribution until Toure himself said sorry last month ‘for misunderstandings of the past’ to help resurrect his career at a club where has become an all-time great.
Four wins in four starts have emphasised his impact at a time when City struggled and, despite mooted moves to America, China and even Brazil, he is expected to figure more following Germany international Ilkay Gundogan’s season-ending knee injury.
“I think I’ve always been a key figure,” he boomed as he discussed his influence during the second-half of the campaign.
But being on the sidelines must have hurt someone who has helped make City one of Europe’s leading clubs since his £24 million (Dhxm) arrival from Guardiola’s Barcelona in 2010?
“I’m okay [with it], I was always being involved,” he revealed. “But you never know me in Belgium [when I was at Beveren], it was tougher. In France, [at Monaco] it was tough. Greece [when I was with Olympiacos] it was okay, but Barcelona it was tough because of the variety, big players like Edmilson, Xavi, Iniesta, Deco – it was much tougher. But I always fight, I love the challenge and that is good for the team as well, to make the team one step better.”
- Clubs: Beveren (2001-03); Metalurh Donetsk (03-05); Olympiacos (05-06); Monaco (06-07); Barcelona (07-10); Manchester City (2010-current)
- Total: 560 appearances, 99 goals International: Ivory Coast (2004-16) 102 caps, 19 goals
- Did you know: In 2009, he was part of Pep Guardiola’s side that won six trophies in one calendar year. Barcelona won the Copa del Rey, La Liga, Champions League, the FIFA Club World Cup, the UEFA Super Cup and the Supercopa Espana
Joking that he feels 20 again, Toure is fit, fresh and far from finished and, even if he does leave City, he aims to bow out on a high, as a champion.
“Of course,” he added. “I want to make something very important with this club.
“I already won two Premier League titles and I want more than that, another new story. What we are seeing is the Premier League is so tough, this year it’s going to be tougher than any other years.
“Before when I talked, in New Jersey, when I signed for City, I came to this club to make history. I want this club to change, I want this club to be bigger than [Manchester] United. I know it’s going to be a lot of work, but that’s my dream.
“I have been lucky to play at big clubs, Barcelona, Olympiacos, but those teams were always used to being champions. City, it was something different, something changing and I am happy now.
“Every single year we are always involved in the title race. Even though we lost, and something changed or something was bad, the following year the owner put more money into the club and got players to make it better. That’s what I like, the challenge. I love a challenge.”
Seluk’s ire at Guardiola had centred on Toure’s omission – ‘humiliated’ was how he described it – from the Champions League squad for the group stages.
But he is now set to replace Gundogan in the 25-man list, ahead of the last-16 tie with Monaco, and Toure added: “I belong on the field you know. Even if I’m not playing I want to be at the stadium to watch. Even when I finish, when I’m going home, I am thinking about what I did and how I played and what I could change.
“Of course I want to be involved, but it depends on the manager. I will be fully prepared for any situation. But I will give 100 per cent for this club, for these fans. I have played a lot of football when you look at all my stats, but at City, the fans at this club are the ones who always sing my name, give this happiness to the family. If I can do more, I will do it.
“We are all sorry for Gundogan to be injured like that. We were all affected by what happened and he’s a massive player.
“I always love this position, to help the team. My role is to keep the team moving the ball, organise, I have the experience.
“I feel very comfortable, but the most important thing is to help my team-mates, to give them positives, because when you have experience like that the youngsters look at you and if you behave badly, it’s difficult.”
Experience of English football is something Guardiola does not have as he tries to make his methods work after triumphs at Barca and then Bayern Munich.
Ten successive wins at the start of the season made City seem invincible, but they have struggled in the past two months and stand seven points behind Chelsea in the Premier League and crashed out of the League Cup to neighbours United.
Guardiola has come under fire for trying to transform City too quickly with his defence particularly vulnerable. But Toure, who shared La Liga and Champions League success with the Catalan at Barca, added: “You always have to do what you know.
“As the years go by, the players go, and coming to a team with such big financial power, you always want to do more, do different things. Because of that every year we have to win the league, every year we’re trying to do that, and doing that here I don’t think he’s going to change many things.
“I was with him two years at Barcelona and now he’s here, we’ll see how he thinks, how he works, I have more years to get to know him.
“When we are training Pep asks me ‘how are you working? If you work well you are going to play. If you don’t, you are out’.”
Having worked hard to regain Guardiola’s trust, a place in the team and the love of the fans, Toure is determined to be exceptional, not exiled, again.