John Stones may have a point to prove on Saturday as he comes up against the lower division footballer who teased him over the summer.
Veteran Port Vale striker Tom Pope claimed he would be prolific if he faced Stones every week after the Manchester City defender endured a difficult match in England’s Nations League loss to Holland.
The 34-year-old tweeted: “Just watched the highlights of the England game! I know I’m a league 2 player, I know he plays for England, I know he’s on £150k a week, I know he’s a million times better player than me but I’d love to play against John Stones every week! I’d get 40 a season!”
That tweet resurfaced last month when City, the holders, were drawn against Vale in the third round of the FA Cup.
The tie takes place at the Etihad Stadium on Saturday evening and Stones is expected to return for the Premier League champions after almost a month out with a hamstring injury.
“He’s fit and available,” said City manager Pep Guardiola. “Step by step he’s getting better. He’s still not at the top but he’s good for some minutes.”
City had high hopes that Stones, 25, could develop into a world-class, ball-playing centre-back when they signed him from Everton in a £47.5million deal in 2016.
He has since endured mixed fortunes at City, with injuries and inconsistent form preventing him holding down a firm place in the side.
Guardiola accepts Stones may not yet have fulfilled his potential, but is not ready to give up on him.
The City boss said: “He has the conditions to do it, but to be the best central defender you have to play one entire season, every three days being there.
“It’s difficult to reach the potential that he has, he has to be at the level to play regularly. The last three seasons and a half he could not do it.
“Sometimes when you have a tough injury – for example like Aymeric (Laporte) had this season or (Ilkay) Gundogan in the first, or (Benjamin) Mendy the year he arrived – it’s unlucky. But in the case of John, I don’t know why he has not been able to play regularly.
“We try to help him. We have tried to do the best to help him since the first day of the three-and-a-half years we have been here. We do everything for him.
“It depends on him. It’s in his hands and in his head to become one of the best.”
Pope, who scored a hat-trick in Vale’s second-round win at Cheltenham, backtracked a little on his controversial tweet after his side were drawn against City.
He tweeted: “This tweet was 6 months ago and you’ve all managed to dig it up. In them 6 months he’s improved dramatically and I think he’s the best centre half in the world.”
The original, however, has not been forgotten.
“It was not nice,” Guardiola said.
Pope, though, is still eager to go head to head with the England international.
“He is physically not the strongest centre-half,” he said in an interview with the Guardian. “He is a ball-playing centre-half.
“That is not a criticism of him but, as a target man, if you are Andy Carroll or Peter Crouch, they would all do the same thing and try and bully him and rough him up. I’d stand by that.”