Adorned with the image and name of Pablo Zabaleta, there is a sky blue tricolor banner with the words ‘Corazon De Leon’, which translates as ‘Heart of a Lion’. Along with a terrace chant, it is a tribute from Manchester City supporters to a fierce competitor and firm favourite. Loyal, loved, lauded and a legend.
“I never thought I was a star, one of the stars of the team, anything like that,” says Zabaleta with typical humility.
“I looked to myself as a player who has worked hard for the team over the years, always trying to give everything off the pitch as well as on it. To make a club better is not just about having the players, but the commitment, character on and off the pitch.
“A big club is made by people. That’s why my love for this club is amazing, it’s too much, and it will be forever.
“I have spent nine years here so when you are that long at one club you have that feeling. Also, with respect to the other teams that I have played for, my best moments as a player have been in a Manchester City shirt.”
It was August 31, 2008, when right-back Zabaleta – fresh from winning a gold medal with Argentina at the Beijing Olympics – joined from Espanyol for £6.45 million (Dh45.4m), an unforgettable day for City as Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan launched a takeover that transformed them into one of English football’s top teams.
Brazilian Robinho arrived at the same time for a record £32.5m (Dh218.5m), but while he lasted two years, Zabaleta settled with wife Christel and embodied the old and new City amid more high-profile, expensive signings.
Humble, yet hungry to succeed, he was a player not concerned by riches, but respect, as courageous, combative performances were admired by all.
Only Vincent Kompany and Joe Hart – now on loan at Torino – remain from that 2008 team, but Zabaleta accepts nothing is forever as he awaits an outcome on his future with his contract ending in June.
“As players we cannot play for 20 years,” says the 32-year-old. “I’m not getting any younger and we see new players coming in for the future, that is normal in football, and you have to accept, especially for this club which is so demanding in terms of trying to win trophies.
“When I first came, I didn’t expect to be here that long at the club, which did not have the same ambition it has today.
“But since the new owners came in and started to invest to bring big names, big players, new training ground, it was a challenge for everyone to show you wanted to be part of this club and have a successful time. That’s why I’ve always kept working hard to keep my place in this squad.
“I remember the first time we met the chairman, Khaldoon [Al Mubarak], he was very clear on his message that he wanted to make something big at this club. But not only the owners, but the players, we wanted to achieve important things.
“If we look back, we have won some special trophies, especially in domestic competitions, and this is something I’m really proud of. I was younger when I was at Espanyol and we won the Copa Del Rey, but my best moments as a player are here at City.”
The FA Cup in 2011 was the first of five major trophies, but helping City win the league – five years ago this week – was unforgettable. Zabaleta’s opening goal in the final game against QPR was somewhat forgotten as Djibril Cisse and Jamie Mackie put the visitors ahead before injury-time drama.
Edin Dzeko levelled and then came Sergio Aguero’s iconic winner after 93 minutes and 20 seconds.
“It was an emotional day, especially in the way we did it, just unbelievable,” recalls Zabaleta. “But when you win a Premier League it’s about the whole work you did during the season, not just one day.”
Another title was sealed on the final day of the 2014 campaign, while two League Cup triumphs and a run to the Champions League semi-finals last season have established City among the elite.
A new era is now unfolding at the Etihad under Pep Guardiola, with Gabriel Jesus and Leroy Sane among the youthful talents.
“The club bought potential, top players who have to play in the next five-six years for City and try to keep wining important trophies like we did in the past,” he adds. “I’m sure they can do that and the future for the club is very bright.”
Another thing Zabaleta is sure about is the greatest-ever footballer.
Having grown up idolising Diego Maradona like so many of his compatriots, it was at the FIFA Under-20 World Cup in 2005 when he first met the genius that is Lionel Messi.
Zabaleta, part of the side that finished fourth in the 2003 tournament held in the UAE, was captain when a skinny 17-year-old from Barcelona joined the squad.
“We didn’t know him back then too much because he was in Spain already and not playing in Argentina with the rest of us,” he tells Sport360°. “But the first training sessions with him, he was just fantastic, what I will never forget.
“I was captain and I told him he needed to feel comfortable with us. Maybe he was a little bit shy to have a conversation with the lads, but he was brilliant.
“For sure I was so lucky to play with him from 2005. Some people compare him to Maradona and say the only difference is Maradona won a World Cup and Messi did not. For me, if Messi wins the World Cup or not, it doesn’t matter, he is the greatest player I have ever seen for sure.”
But having conquered club football with Barcelona, lifting the game’s biggest prize is a motivator. So desperate is Messi to triumph that he reversed a decision to retire from international football after Argentina’s penalty shoot-out loss to Chile in the 2016 Copa America final – following on from similar heartbreak in the 2014 World Cup and 2015 Copa America finals.
“We have lost three consecutive finals and that is really hard for us to take,” says Zabaleta. “For this generation of players it is hard not to win something, let’s say the World Cup next year, especially with having a player like Messi. Next year will be the last chance for us to win it.”
First Argentina have to reach Russia and, after a disappointing qualifying campaign that cost Edgardo Bauza – set to be the UAE’s next boss – his job, they stand fifth with only the top four guaranteed to advance.
Zabaleta has added incentive to fulfil his dream. Having suffered serious injuries from a car crash in Buenos Aires in 2011 and recovered from a coma, his father Jorge was unable to watch his son’s first appearance at the World Cup three years later.
“He was struggling to go to Brazil, struggling to walk so he was a little bit upset about that,” adds Zabaleta, whose mother Laura died of a heart attack when he was 15.
“He’s good now so let’s see if I have the opportunity to go to Russia.
“You can’t predict what will happen in life. When you lose your mother, your mother is always the most important person to have next to you, but sometimes those things happen and you have to be strong and look forward.”
Each week, Sport360 brings you the best five players from the English Premier League, as chosen by you the supporters through our ValoraFutbol fan ratings tool.
YOU have direct influence on who appears in each Top Five, so be sure to rate each weekend.
What do you make of this week’s ratings?
1. DAVID SILVA (MANCHESTER CITY) – 8.2
While Sergio Aguero, Yaya Toure, and Vincent Kompany have hogged the headlines during Manchester City’s rise to prominence, David Silva has a claim to be the club’s best player over the last five years. The Spaniard has been a model of consistency, and among the best creative players England has hosted during his time in the Premier League.
Another virtuoso performance pulling the strings helped City make light work of Crystal Palace and ensured they kept up their push for a top-four finish.
David Silva has now been involved in more Premier League goals since 2011/12 than any other midfielder.— Squawka Football (@Squawka) May 6, 2017
34 goals ⚽️
57 assists 🅰️
2. CESC FABREGAS (CHELSEA) – 8.1
Fabregas’ credentials as an assist king are by now well-known, with Monday night’s performance against Middlesbrough leaving Chelsea one win away from sealing the Premier League title.
It seems shocking that the Spaniard’s future at the club is in doubt, but given the relatively low number of starts he’s had under Antonio Conte, it’s understandable that Fabregas would consider a move that would give him more playing time. However, even from the bench, he’s proved vital to Chelsea’s title charge this year.
There’s one assist record that Fabregas can realistically target – the tally for most assists in a single Premier League season. How delightfully ironic would it be if he broke Arsenal legend Thierry Henry’s record of 20 while wearing a Chelsea shirt?
Cesc Fabregas is the 1st player to have 10+ assists in 6 different PL seasons, moving clear of Ryan Giggs & Wayne Rooney, who were also on 5 pic.twitter.com/miMdeja6uP— Sky Sports Statto (@SkySportsStatto) May 8, 2017
3. SAM VOKES (BURNLEY) – 7.6
Burnley’s form had tapered off in 2017 after a bright start to the season had seen them briefly occupy a top-half place. Going into the fixture against West Brom, the Clarets had picked up only eight points from their last nine games, and before last week’s win over Crystal Palace they had been in danger of being sucked into the relegation battle.
Sam Vokes’ double, his first in the Premier League, put those fears firmly to rest. Burnley are now all but guaranteed to retain their Premier League place for the first time in club history. Vokes’ late equaliser will go down in club lore for its significance.
4. JORDAN PICKFORD (SUNDERLAND) – 7.6
The young English goalkeeper has been one of the bright spots in Sunderland’s miserable season, and it’s scary to wonder where Sunderland would be without Pickford.
In a game Hull City needed to win to keep up their survival hopes, Pickford thwarted the home side again and again, and for once the rest of his team matched his standards as Sunderland picked up a surprise 2-0 win. If the Black Cats had performed like this in just a handful of more games this season, they wouldn’t already be relegated.
5. SALOMON RONDON (WEST BROMWICH ALBION) – 7.6
Early in the season, the Venezuelan striker was looking like a striker worth the club-record 12m fee West Brom paid for him in 2015 (a record that has since been broken), especially after a hat-trick in December.
But a 19-game goal drought after that hat-trick saw Rondon’s confidence shattered and manager Tony Pulis was forced to turn to other options in attack.
So there was much relief when Rondon found the back of the net on Saturday to grab West Brom’s equaliser at Turf Moor. Pulis had publicly been extremely supportive of his misfiring striker, and the praise he delivered Rondon after the game reflected how much West Brom need the striker to succeed.
19 - Salomon Rondon's goal was his first in 19 Premier League games, since netting a hat-trick vs Swansea in December. Relief.— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) May 6, 2017
Chelsea striker Diego Costa says he will decide his own future – that does not necessarily mean a move to China.
Costa scored his 20th Premier League goal of the season as Chelsea beat Middlesbrough 3-0 on Monday night to move within three points of the title.
The 28-year-old striker has been repeatedly linked with a lucrative move to Tianjin Quanjian in the Chinese Premier League since January.
Costa told South American broadcasters DirecTV Sports: “I am the owner of my future and it does not mean that I am going to China.”
Chelsea head coach Antonio Conte has insisted the “will of the player” is important in the future of any of his players.
And Costa has previously admitted agitating for a return to Atletico Madrid.
He has two years remaining on the contract signed when he joined from Atletico for £32million (Dh152m) in July 2014.
Speculation over a move was at its peak in January when Costa missed the trip to Leicester after apparently having his head turned by a mega money offer from Tianjin.
Conte publicly stated his absence on that occasion was due to a back injury and the rumours subsided but resurfaced last week.
It was suggested a £76m (Dh361m) transfer had been agreed, but Tianjin took to Weibo – China’s equivalent of Twitter – to deny any negotiations had taken place.
Tianjin Quanjian via Weibo: "Club would like to make clear no discussions have taken place regarding the transfer of Diego Costa." #SSNHQ— Bryan Swanson (@skysports_bryan) May 4, 2017
And Conte last Friday did not clarify the situation, calling on Costa and all his players to maintain their focus on completing the season with silverware.
Chelsea have three games to win the Premier League and can do so with victory at West Brom on Friday night.
The Blues also play Arsenal in the FA Cup final on May 27.
Provided by Press Association Sport