Whilst the footballing world debated the value of Robin Van Persie over Radamel Falcao or just about anyone over Marcelo following the La Liga domination of the FIFA Team of the Year last week, one man who must feel pretty hard done by didn’t even get a mention.
The man in question is Manchester City’s Pablo Zabaleta, who has become a force to be reckoned with in the last 12 months, nailing down his spot at right back and becoming a vital cog in City’s well-oiled machine.
The Argentinian arrived at the Etihad Stadium back in the summer of 2008, the day before City were bought out by the Abu Dhabi United Group. He was prised from Spanish side Espanyol for a fee rumoured to be around £6.5 million, turning down Italian giants Juventus in the process in order to join the Sheik Mansour revolution at Eastlands.
Originally Zabaleta found himself as something of a utility man under Mark Hughes, operating at either full back or often in a holding midfield role. He always performed to a consistent standard, game after game regardless of the role he was asked to perform for his team. But he struggled to nail down a position in the team.
This impacted Zabaleta’s role with Argentina, who he had represented countless times at various youth levels; including captaining his side to victory at the 2005 FIFA Under-20 World Cup and starting every game of the Olympic Gold medal success of 2008.
He was a bit-part player at the 2010 World Cup - included as part of the squad but not called upon at any stage of the competition. Then-manager Diego Maradona elected instead to play Newcastle winger Jonas Gutierrez out of position at right back ahead of the Manchester City man.
But last season proved to be a turning point as Roberto Mancini turned to Zabaleta during the crucial second half of the season, forcing his way past Micah Richards to become a mainstay of City’s eventual title success.
Dependable in defence and buccaneering going forward, the 28-year-old gave the Citizens another dimension, even scoring the opening goal of the title clinching 3-2 victory over QPR. Zabaleta’s abilities as a footballer are admirable but it’s his combination of such talent with an obvious determination to succeed, a desire to be the best he can be and refusal to accept anything less from his colleagues, that make him stand out as unique and invaluable to Mancini and Mansour alike.
Deputising as captain in the absence of Vincent Kompany, Zabaleta is clearly a big voice in the City team. Not an obvious role for the diminutive figure in a dressing room full of big characters, huge talents and even bigger egos but he’s obviously, and rightly, respected in the set up and you get the feeling that when he speaks, people listen.
In public appearances he speaks calmly, with authority and with a clear message of defiance, epitomised this week by his insistence that Manchester United can still be caught this season despite their seven point lead.
Given his meteoric rise to the prominence in the Manchester City first team, in the year that saw the club claim the Premier League crown from their neighbours and win their first league title in forty-four years in the process, it’s hard to see how he wasn’t selected in FIFA’s team of the year ahead of Dani Alves who achieved little of note in 2012; unless of course it was a tie breaker ultimately decided by who was offside the most in which case Alves is probably the best player in the world.
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