Manchester City fans set to honour Pablo Zabaleta in what could be his final appearance at the Etihad
If Manchester City beat Liverpool to the Premier League title this year, Vincent Kompany, David Silva and Sergio Aguero will all add a fourth winner’s medal to their collections. The trio will still not be anywhere near the record held by Ryan Giggs (13), nor the impressive hauls of Paul Scholes (11), Gary Neville (eight), Denis Irwin and Roy Keane (both seven).
In terms of non-British or Irish players, though, only Ole Gunnar Solskjaer (six), Peter Schmeichel, Patrice Evra and Nemanja Vidic (all five) will have won the league more times since 1992 than the Manchester City men. There is no doubt that Kompany, Silva and Aguero are each among their club’s greatest players of all time, but on Wednesday night City supporters will direct their adulation towards another of their modern heroes.
Pablo Zabaleta was a key part of the City sides who won the Premier League under Roberto Mancini in 2011/12 and Manuel Pellegrini in 2013/14. When he signed from Espanyol on 31 August 2008, the club was on the cusp of a watershed moment in its history: a day later, the Abu Dhabi Investment Group completed its takeover, replacing Thaksin Shinawatra at the helm. It was a moment which changed not just City forever, but the Premier League too – even though Zabaleta’s debut campaign in Manchester only brought a 10th-place finish under Mark Hughes.
The right-back enjoyed a positive season on an individual level, though, making 32 appearances in the Premier League and a further 13 in cup competitions. He then helped City into the top five the following campaign, although they were pipped to the final Champions League spot by Tottenham Hotspur.
A third-place finish in 2010/11, in which Zabaleta played an integral role in helping Mancini’s men finish the season with the joint-best defensive record in the division, saw City qualify for Europe’s foremost competition for the first time since 1968/69, before the club secured their third top-flight title in 2011/12, with the Argentinian scoring the first goal in that extraordinary 3-2 victory over Queens Park Rangers on the final day.
City were unable to defend their crown the following year, but they recaptured the championship in Pellegrini’s maiden season of 2013/14, as Zabaleta missed only three Premier League matches. He remained first-choice right-back in 2014/15 but lost that position to Bacary Sagna in Pellegrini’s final campaign, while the arrival of Pep Guardiola in summer 2016 represented the beginning of the end: Zabaleta was named in his new manager’s starting XI on just 11 occasions in the top flight, before swapping City for West Ham in the summer.
Now 34, the former Argentina international is no longer a guaranteed pick in east London either, with Ryan Fredericks having usurped him at right-back in recent weeks. He remains an important member of Pellegrini’s squad, however, and his experience will no doubt come in handy if he is selected to face City on Wednesday.
With his West Ham contract set to expire in June, this could be the last time Zabaleta takes to the field at the Etihad Stadium. City fans will be determined to honour a talented, committed player who, after making 333 club appearances and winning five major trophies, occupies a permanent place in their hearts.
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