Pablo Zabaleta, the unsung hero

Published : May 25, 2013 00:00 IST

Pablo Zabaleta’s consistently brilliant form went almost unnoticed outside the Etihad Stadium at first but, as the season has gone on, it has become clear to all he has been the club’s player of the year. By Andy Hampson.

It is not unusual these days for Manchester City’s seasons to be dominated by Argentinians.

Carlos Tevez arrived from rivals Manchester United amid a blaze of publicity in 2009 and has been the subject of plenty of headlines since, both good and bad.

The summer of 2011 then saw City splash out a club record GBP38million on Sergio Aguero, an investment which paid off spectacularly last season with 30 goals, including the dramatic last-gasp effort which secured a first league title in 44 years.

But this term it has been a more understated Argentinian import who has caught the eye, a defender, and someone whose arrival predates those of Tevez and Aguero.

Pablo Zabaleta signed from Espanyol in August 2008, just a day before the takeover by Sheikh Mansour of Abu Dhabi which transformed the club.

Almost immediately Zabaleta, a relatively low-key and cheap acquisition at GBP6.45million, was forced to fight for his place in the squad as a dramatic series of expensive new signings, some of which have come and gone, shook the game.

Of the side in which Zabaleta made his City debut, Joe Hart, Micah Richards and Vincent Kompany have survived, but most of the rest — including Michael Ball, Dietmar Hamann, Stephen Ireland, Robinho and Jo — seem to belong to a different era.

Right-back Zabaleta has been a solid and dependable member of Roberto Mancini’s squad for the past three years but the Italian’s preference for rotating full-backs meant he was not a regular starter during last season’s title-winning campaign. That has changed this term with injuries to Richards and new signing Maicon enabling Zabaleta to establish himself as a permanent fixture.

His consistently brilliant form went almost unnoticed outside the Etihad Stadium at first but, as the season has gone on, it has become clear to all he has been the club’s player of the year.

In a squad of such stellar talent that is quite some achievement, although he himself is happy to remain the unsung hero.

The 28-year-old said: “You feel great when people give you credit but I always try to put the team before me. Football is not about individual players, it’s about the collective.”

Zabaleta has stood out both defensively and as an attacking threat during a season in which City have collectively failed to hit the heights of last season.

Their Premier League title defence was an underwhelming one, but on their day, they remain a formidable side.

They showed this twice in the space of a week in early April as they scored a psychological blow by beating Manchester United at Old Trafford ahead of their coronation as new champions and then saw off Chelsea in their FA Cup semi-final.

Zabaleta said: “That is why I always say we have got fantastic players in the team, good names, but also we show a great spirit.

“We fight for each other, we always talk about that. When we show that spirit and everyone gives everything for each other — Manchester City are a difficult team to beat.”

Despite the frustration of failing to defend the Premier League crown, City's statistics could still make pleasant reading come the end of the campaign, particularly for a club more accustomed to failure in recent times.

Mancini's men are on course to finish second — last season aside, a feat not achieved since 1977 — and they can win a second FA Cup in three years by beating Wigan at Wembley.

“It's always so special to play a final at Wembley,” said Zabaleta, a late substitute in the 2011 final.

“We know how important the FA Cup is. It is a massive competition and a team like Manchester City want to keep winning a trophy every year.”

Zabaleta is taking nothing for granted against a Wigan side who have once again spent most of the season fighting to pull away from the relegation zone.

He said: “They are in a difficult moment but we need to say well done to Wigan, they have got to the final for the first time ever.

“That means Roberto Martinez is doing a fantastic job for them and, always in one game, anything can happen.”

The match would be given added poignancy for Zabaleta if his father could attend.

Zabaleta senior was seriously injured in a road accident in Buenos Aires two years ago and was unable to attend City’s last final.

He remains in a wheelchair but Zabaleta is investigating whether it might be possible for him to travel.

He said: “We are looking to try and bring him to the final. He wants to come but we need to organise it well and it is a bit difficult. He needs someone else to come with him and at the moment we are not sure.”

His attendance would cap what could be another special day for City’s unsung hero.

© PA Sport, 2013, All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, re-written, re-distributed or commercially exploited. Sportstar is not responsible for any inaccuracy in the material.

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