Micah Richards and Pablo Zabaleta Set for Right-Back Battle

Rob Pollard@@RobPollard_Featured ColumnistAugust 12, 2013

POZNAN, POLAND - NOVEMBER 04: Manchester City players Shaun Wright-Philips, Micah Richards and Pablo Zabaleta leave the pitch at half time during the UEFA Europa League Group A match between KKS Lech Poznan and Manchester City at the Bulgarska Street Stadium on November 4, 2010 in Poznan, Poland.  (Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images)
Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

Strength in depth creates "nice problems" for a manager, something Manuel Pellegrini will have to deal with at Manchester City this season. They have fierce competition in almost every position on the pitch, particularly at right-back, where Pellegrini has inherited two players of exceptional quality.

Pablo Zabaleta and Micah Richards are arguably the two finest right-backs in the Premier League.

They’re set to renew their battle to be City’s first choice this season. A knee injury kept Richards out for almost the entire 2012-13 campaign as Zabaleta won the club’s Player of the Year award, but Richards is now back and desperate to reclaim the position.

Richards joined City as a 14-year-old from Oldham Athletic. Hailed as a future star from a young age, he was given his debut in 2005 as a 17-year-old, coming on in an away game against Arsenal. He made his first start against Charlton a few weeks later.

His performances were so impressive for a player his age that he made 16 first-team appearances before the season was over, as well as captaining the youth side to the FA Youth Cup final.

He went on to establish his place in the City side permanently before playing for England at Under-21 and senior level, but a huge dip in form during Mark Hughes’ tenure saw him lose his way badly. His place in the team was no longer secure. Question marks began to surface about whether he was good enough to justify the hype that had surrounded his breakthrough.

However, a renaissance under Roberto Mancini silenced the majority of critics. Richards improved the defensive side of his game massively under the Italian. In 2011-12 when City won the title, he was one of the outstanding performers. The attacking side of his game had gone up a level, and he was defensively sound, displaying all the hallmarks of a brilliant modern-day full-back.

A serious knee injury suffered in the home match against Swansea in October ruined last season, reducing him to just eight appearances. He got himself fit just in time to be involved in the final weeks of the season and is now back to full fitness after a full preseason.

Zabaleta joined City for a bargain £6 million in a rare moment of brilliance in the transfer market from Hughes. He instantly won over the City fans with his incredible desire and commitment on and off the pitch. Zabaleta is the type of player fans love: one who will run through brick walls and never shirks a challenge.  

Initially, there were some suspect tendencies in the Argentine’s game. He was too easy to beat in one-on-one situations and was susceptible to yellow cards, making him a liability to the team.

But eventually he flourished, becoming a vital member of the side under Mancini’s tutelage.

Last season, with Richards out injured, he played 37 games and was rightly regarded as the best right-back in the league. He was undoubtedly City’s best and most consistent performer.

With Richards once again fit and raring to go and Zabaleta determined to pick up where he left off last season, it should make for a fascinating battle between the two. Most people see Richards as the better of the two going forward and Zabaleta as the more reliable defensively. Which one Pellegrini chooses will be one of the more interesting subplots during the opening weeks of the new season.

Rob Pollard is Bleacher Report's lead Manchester City correspondent and will be following the club from a Manchester base throughout the 2013-14 season. Follow him on Twitter here @TypicalCity