City DNA #70: Warrior. Legend. Zaba. – Manchester City FC

General

It was poignant to say the least that Pablo Zabaleta joined City a day before Sheikh Mansour was announced the Club’s new owner.

City DNA #68: Noel Gallagher

Manager Mark Hughes was about to be given a huge transfer budget as a result of the takeover, but the deal for the relatively unknown Espanyol defender had already been agreed and Hughes believed, at just £6.5m, the Argentinian was worth the risk.

Just nine days before, Vincent Kompany had signed for a similar fee and it’s hard to imagine the Club bringing two better or dedicated players to form a defensive bedrock for the glorious era ahead.

While Zabaleta and Kompany were welcome additions, their arrival didn’t capture the imagination of the football world or, it’s fair to say, most City fans at the time.

The capture of Real Madrid superstar Robinho, just minutes before the 2008 summer transfer window closed a few days later, however, did.

Zabaleta: The Warrior

City DNA #68: Noel Gallagher

Both Zaba and Robinho made their debut against Chelsea with a wave of optimism washing over the Club as never before.

All eyes were on Robinho, while Zaba just got on with it, with wholehearted defending.

City were beaten 3-1 by Chelsea at the Etihad that day, dampening those flames of enthusiasm somewhat, but not extinguishing them.

It was, of course, very early days but what quickly caught the eye of City fans was Zaba’s total disregard for self-preservation each time he played.

Years later, he would reveal that he treated every challenge as though it were his last – a footballer’s career, of course, can be ended with one bad tackle, so Zaba made sure every challenge was full-blooded, fair but very much one for the team.

It wasn’t long before he became a sort of cult figure among City fans – the one who gave everything each and every time he played and was completely committed to the cause. He wasn’t alone, of course, but he stood out.

City supporters resonated with his passion, heart and willingness to put his body on the line time and time again.

In some ways, he was a defender from years gone by and could probably have played in any era, in any country – he took the art of defending to a different level and in his world, there were no quarters asked and no quarters given.

What you saw was what you got.

It didn’t take long for the mutual admiration to take hold – this was where Pablo Zabaleta was meant to be, playing on front of supporters who appreciated everything he did in his adopted home city.

In a series of firsts, he received his first red card against Liverpool a month later and his first goal against Wigan Athletic in January 2009.

By that point, the tough-tackling right-back had already cemented his place in the fans’ hearts and would remain a crowd idol throughout his time at the Etihad.

His father was involved in a serious car crash not long before the Blues reached the 2011 FA Cup final and Zaba flew back to Argentina to be by his bedside.

He returned in time for the final and came on as an 88th-minute sub for Carlos Tevez as City ended their 35-year wait for silverware with a 1-0 win over Tony Pulis’ side. It was absolutely fitting that he be a part of that triumph and a demonstration of his commitment to the Club at an unbelievably difficult time.

Zaba shared right-back duties with Micah Richards during the 2011/12 campaign but it was his goal that broke the deadlock against QPR as City went on to clinch a dramatic last-day title triumph.

He was voted the MCFC Player of the Year for 2012/13 and captained the Blues several times during Kompany’s absence with injury.

The only downside was an 84th-minute red card in the 2013 FA Cup final that City lost 1-0 to Wigan Athletic in added time.

At the end of the campaign he was also voted into the PFA Team of the Year – the only City player to be nominated by fellow professionals that season.

He would add another Premier League title in 2013/14 as well as a Capital One Cup victory over Sunderland in his best season yet in terms of silverware and made 48 appearances in all competitions.

The next year – and for the first time in his City career – injuries, bumps and bruises took their toll and he made just 22 appearances after missing most of the first half of the season.

In many ways, it was surprising he hadn’t missed more game given his committed style.

Rarely has there been a player who has put their body on the line to the extent Zaba did, and a succession of gashed heads, broken noses and goodness knows what else was a familiar sight each season.

No player shed more blood for Manchester City and nobody’s name echoed around the Etihad like Zaba’s – it still does to this day.

But no matter what the injury was, he always wanted to come straight back on the pitch and so the image of him playing with a bandaged head became synonymous City’s No.5.

He would enjoy one full season under the tutelage of Pep Guardiola, and the fact he made 32 appearances shows his final campaign at the Etihad was productive and committed to the end.

Then, the moment every City fan knew would come one day, as Zaba announced the 2016/17 campaign would be his last at City and the home game with West Brom in May 2017 proved to be just as emotional as everyone had predicted it would be.

It was hard to imagine Pablo Zabaleta not being part of Manchester City, and the reception he received as he came on after 62 minutes, replacing another crowd idol in David Silva was deafening.

Nine years, 333 appearances and endless rolls of bandages and band aids, the ‘Farewell Zaba’ evening was capped with a 3-1 win over the Baggies.

He came back to the Club in the colours of West Ham United in the seasons that followed and on each occasion, received a rousing ovation – the sort that makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.

And with this being his last season in English football – maybe even as a player – City fans will be watching closely as to what he decides to do next because if any footballer has City DNA running through him, it is Pablo Zabaleta.