Tuesday evening will be the final time that Pablo Zabaleta enters the pitch at the Etihad Stadium wearing the blue of Manchester City. After nine years, 332 appearances (with a possible two more), 11 goals, four managers, and countless stitches, broken noses, and bloodied shirts, the Argentinian is calling time on his career at Eastlands.
It’s going to be an emotional goodbye for both the player and the fans at the game with West Brom, but it can’t distract from the task in hand – City still need six points from their final two matches to be sure of qualifying for the Champions League group phase automatically, ahead of Liverpool. A win and a draw would guarantee a top four finish, and a place in the Playoff Round.
But it’s difficult to deny that Tuesday evening will be about Zabaleta.
Signed for £6.5m in August 2008, he was the last player through the doors before Sheikh Mansour’s takeover of the club and – along with Vincent Kompany – the sort of player that Mark Hughes had built a reputation on signing at Blackburn: not too expensive, but would do a job.
Nobody could truly have expected Zabaleta to have done the job he has, however. He grew with the club and, as expectations got higher and higher, he improved his own level of performance to keep himself in the team. It reached the point where, for a spell in 2013 and 2014, the Argentinian was the best full-back in the English league – and it was typical to see him bombing up and down the right flank. He’d put in a steely tackle, lay the ball off, and then over or under-lap the midfielder in front of him.
He’d be one of the first back in position if his side lost the ball too.
What endeared him to the fans most, however, was the frequency at which he’d put his body on the line for the cause. It’s not unusual to see Zabaleta needing to leave the pitch for stitches or with a bloodied bandage around his head. He broke his nose several times in attempting to win back possession, challenge for an aerial ball, or keep it out of his own team’s net.
Supporters love a trier – but Zabaleta was so much more than someone who worked hard. He went from being a rash challenger in his early days, to a defender whose reading of the game was up there with the best. It meant his positioning was superb and he was able to time his tackles to come away with possession more often than not. As the years went by, his challenges were no less aggressive, but they were so much more controlled.
He became such a fans’ favourite that it was always a joy to see him find the net. It was clear that the feeling was mutual – some players grab and kiss the badge on scoring after only a few months at the club, knowing they’ll do it again elsewhere in three or four years. When Zabaleta did it, the fans knew he meant it.
His opening goal in a 1-0 win over Wigan in January 2009 was a fine strike. While most of his goals weren’t screamers, he did follow it up with a belter in a 4-1 success over Fulham the following season. However, the efforts he’s most remembered for came years later.
Having not scored all season, it seemed fitting that Zabaleta opened the scoring against Queens Park Rangers in the final game of 2011-12. It could have been the goal that won City the title, but for some traditional tomfoolery from the club, and it needed Edin Dzeko and Sergio Aguero to seal a 3-2 victory in stoppage time.
The goal in the 2-0 win over Roma in 2014-15 is remembered for the celebration – it secured City second place in their Champions League group after a horror-show of a first four matches that year – while, a week later, he announced his wife was expecting a baby after his cheeky dinked finish in a 4-1 win at Sunderland.
Injuries and the ageing process have taken their toll, though, and it’s been clear for long spells of this season that he’s no longer up to the standards that he previously set of himself. His legs don’t work as quickly as they used to and it left him exposed several times, to the point where Jesus Navas was being asked to do the work up and down the flank instead.
While it’s not a marriage many fans are ready to end just yet, it’s clear to see that it’s the right time for the player and the club to part ways. Don’t expect many dry eyes in the Etihad at full time on Tuesday evening.
His latest manager, Pep Guardiola, says that Zabaleta is rightly viewed as a legend at City: “I have a lot of respect for the people, for the players, for the managers – for the people involved in sport [who have] a lot, a lot of time doing what they have done. I think it’s nine years here, so to replace that you need someone who has been here for nine years. And for that you need time, it’s not easy.
“His impact here was amazing, he was [of the current group, one of] the first players to come here and what he helped with the other guys for the club helped what the club is right now.”
Guardiola wants to give Zabaleta a great send off: “That’s why he deserves the best last game here at home, and hopefully all the fans can come tomorrow to, first of all, support us more than ever, especially in the moments we are in trouble. Against Tony Pulis teams we will always be in trouble in defending the set pieces, the corners, the long balls.
“We play for a lot of important things, so they have to come. Maybe it’s the first time I announce it, but they have to come to support us more than ever.
“And [they have to come] to express their gratitude to one of the most important players in the whole history of Manchester City.
“There’s many reasons why it’ll be a nice and important day tomorrow – one of them is for Pablo.
Guardiola also said he didn’t believe the occasion would be a distraction for the team and for Zabaleta: “I think it might even help us more.”
Written by David Mooney
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