It’s vaguely ironic that one of the unsung members of the title-winning Manchester City squad is also one of the few players belonging to the pre-Sheikh Mansour era at the Etihad. While the Agueros, Toures and Kompanys may well take all the plaudits, one player who has starred amidst City ‘s Galacticos is Pablo Zabaleta.
Since joining from Espanyol in 2008, the £6.5million right back might just trump any arrival at City in value-for-money terms. So pivotal he is to City’s defence that it now seems a bit bizarre that Zabaleta started just 18 matches during City’s title win in 2011-12.
The then City manager Roberto Mancini preferred Micah Richards instead. How the tables have turned. While Richards has played only 161 minutes in the league under Pellegrini this season, no City player has spent more time on the pitch than Zabaleta. It seems fitting that, after being left on the periphery in 2012, the 29-year-old should have such a hand in City winning the title once again.
The right-back’s positioning and marking have improved hugely from two years ago and while Vincent Kompany and Martin Demichelis have suffered loss of form or concentration, Zabaleta has been rock solid.
His disciplinary record and temper remains suspect, as the 53 fouls he has conceded and 11 yellow cards suggest. But he more than makes up for that with his attacking instincts. Zabeleta, who has six assists (only Toure, Silva, Kolorov, Nasri and Navas, all mid-fielders, have more league assists) and one goal this season, possesses a vital ability to make his overlapping forward runs at the precise moment.
His tireless sprints down the right have given City the luxury of having a man-advantage in the attacking third, which reflects in the number of goals they’ve score this season. At times, Zabeleta is the farthest man up front but at the same time, he is also quick to retreat to fulfill his defensive duties, covering more than 10km per game on average.
Just as with City, Zabeleta finds himself in a similar situation with Argentina as well. In an attacking array that comprises Messi, Lavezzi, Di Maria, Aguero, to name a few, the right-back may slip under the radar again. But that doesn’t diminish his importance. In fact, when Alejandro Sabella decides his starting XI for the World Cup exactly a month from today, Zabeleta’s will be one of the first names he will put down.
(Mihir is senior correspondent based in Mumbai)