Examining the Rise of Manchester City's Pablo Zabaleta
While Manchester City's reign as Premier League champions is now officially over, it has not been a lost season by all means. The European run ended miserably too, but a spot in a second FA Cup final in three years is nothing to sneeze at.
But perhaps the biggest positive to come out of this season has been the emergence of a new star. Argentine defender Pablo Zabaleta has gone from Micah Richards' main competition to one of the first names Roberto Mancini pencils on to his team sheet every match.
Where is this coming from, you ask? Well, here is the answer.
Biographical information courtesy of City's official profile page for the player.
Pablo Zabaleta was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina in January 1985. He began his professional career at capital side San Lorenzo, best known for being the preferred club of Pope Francis. After several seasons there, he moved on to Barcelona's other club, Espanyol.
Prior to his time in Spain, he captained an Argentine side that won the U-20 World Cup, a team which also featured the likes of Lionel Messi and Zabaleta's current club teammate Sergio Aguero. Not too shabby.
During his tenure at Espanyol, the club won the Copa del Rey in 2006, earning them a place in what was then known as the UEFA Cup (now the Europa League). In that competition, they made it to the final without losing, but fell in a shootout to fellow Spanish side Sevilla.
Zabaleta then became one of Mark Hughes' summer signings, joining City in 2008 for a fee of around €8 million. Earlier that summer, he helped guide Argentina to yet another title, this time a gold medal in the Olympic Games held in China.
The Early Days at Eastlands
In his first years with City, Zabaleta was often shifted between right back and central defense. Part of this was due to the presence of Micah Richards at right-back, a theme which has consistently kept the Argentine from being the full-time starter at the position.
Mark Hughes' desire to use his new signing in both positions showed off plenty of positives, including the player's durability and tackling. Zabaleta started 39 games in all competitions in his debut season, as he began to make a place for himself in the squad.
His newfound versatility continued to make him valuable to the squad after Hughes was sacked after just one-and-a-half seasons. His replacement, Roberto Mancini, realized that the former Espanyol man was more than capable of being a vital part of City's ambitions.
With each successive season, Zabaleta's role in the side has continued to grow. As part of the FA Cup title run a couple years ago, Zabaleta was on the wrong end of a Paul Scholes challenge, pictured here. But he'd be around to help City win its first silverware in more than 30 years.
This challenge also epitomized one of the less glamorous sides of Zabaleta's game—being on the wrong end of some hefty tackles. In recognizing the Argentine's birthday earlier this year, City's website ran this video as a tribute to their "lionheart" defender.
Last season saw him become an even more integral cog in the City machine as they picked up the Premier League title. While he made the fewest appearances of his career, he made telling contributions, including scoring the opener against QPR on that fateful May 13 afternoon.
After Micah Richards suffered a severe knee injury early on, Zabaleta has taken a stranglehold on the right-back spot he's not likely to relinquish. Goals against Manchester United and Stoke City in league play have certainly helped his case.
He picked up the club's Etihad Player of the Month honors in both December and January, both of which were thoroughly deserved. His impressive play came despite the team losing its first two matches of the league campaign in that span.
Zabaleta was also given a new honor, as he was City's captain during Vincent Kompany's injury layoff. He even took the armband in the derby loss in December and nearly salvaged a point for his side with the superb finish linked above.
What's in Store for Zaba?
It's hard to say what the future will hold for Zabaleta. He's now a must-have player in the City lineup, an indispensable asset and a fan favorite. But could there still be room for more to come from the Argentine? Who knows?
Vincent Kompany has been linked with filling Barcelona's need for a central defender, though the Belgian insists he will stay. There's no reason not to believe him. But should a sale happen, "Zab Man" will surely be first-choice in who will be the next full-time skipper.
At 28, he's hitting his physical prime, meaning we could be seeing even more from the right-back. He pops up with key goals, he's afraid of nothing and always has the right attitude. Hopefully, he'll lift some more silverware before too long.