Pablo Zabaleta – the undisputed hero at Manchester City

Manuel Pellegrini’s men claimed the Premier League trophy on Sunday, and Pablo Zabaleta’s form is one of the key reasons why.

In the upper echelons at the Etihad Stadium, where the powers that be must now decide where to strengthen what is a Premier League winning squad, there must be a tinge of disappointment about Sergio Aguero’s fitness.

Manchester City’s mercurial striker has been hampered by muscular problems that have disrupted what could potentially have been a wonderful season for the 25-year-old.

And it was a campaign that surely would have seen Manuel Pellegrini’s men crowned champions sooner than the final day of the season, had Aguero’s fitness not been compromised.

But as important as Aguero is to this Manchester City side, it is another Argentinian that once again deserves the plaudits this year.

Pellegrini has brought the excitement back to the blue-half of Manchester. His appointment was described as ‘holistic’ and it brought much sneering, but those who sneered must now reflect that the dismissal of Roberto Mancini has proved a masterstroke by the City board.

Attacking, attractive football has been at the forefront of the Chilean’s playing style, the likes of Samir Nasri, Edin Dzeko and Yaya Toure have been the principal beneficiaries. Indeed it was Toure’s rampaging run, as has often been the case this season, which saw City reach 100 Premier League goals in their 4-0 demolition of Aston Villa last week.

But it was the man who set up the first two goals in that vital win against the Midlands outfit, Pablo Zabaleta, who was the cream of the crop.

Marauding down the right wing, the gritty, tenacious Argentinian is a joy to watch. Zabaleta is becoming an institution at Manchester City and in the Premier League; he is fast becoming part of the furniture.

It’s often said that modern day fullbacks are better offensively than they are defensively, yet Zabaleta is the exception to the rule.

Sunday’s game with West Ham, the final fixture of the Premier League campaign, saw the 29-year-old play his 48th game of the season. He has missed just three Premier League matches, proving how integral he is to the club’s success.

Seven assists, one goal, 15 clean sheets, 120 tackles won, 84 clearances made, the numbers do not tell the whole story for the hugely popular Zabaleta. His determination, passion and ability has helped drive City to a second Premier League trophy, to compliment the Capital One Cup won earlier this year.

Despite the majority of their core players – Vincent Kompany, David Silva and Sergio Aguero – having missed a combined total of 35 games this season, City still earned Premier League glory.

Aguero may be the talismanic striker who grabs the headlines, but it’s his Argentinian teammate Zabaleta who is the undisputed hero at Manchester City.

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Manchester City 4-1 Manchester United: Comment

For fifty minutes at the Etihad Stadium on Sunday Manchester City lay down a marker to the rest of the Premier League. Four-nil up and cruising against their biggest rivals for the league title, Manuel Pellegrini portrayed a man who had ice in his veins on the sidelines. Whilst the Chilean’s counterpart in the opposing dug-out, David Moyes, struggled to comprehend with the demolition he was witnessing, Pellegrini was content that his side were finally beginning to implement his methods.

For as bad as Manchester United were on Sunday, City were every bit as impressive. Taking control of the match from the first minute. Led by the magnificent Vincent Kompany, his first Premier League game since Newcastle on the opening weekend, the Blues pressed their neighbours on the rare occasions Manchester United had control of possession in the first half. Yaya Toure, a beacon in midfield, ran United new-boy Marouane Fellaini ragged. Rio Ferdinand will be haunted by Sergio Aguero everywhere he looks over the next few days and Nemanja Vidic will sleep with one eye open after being bullied by the beastly Alvaro Negredo.

But perhaps the most significant performance, from the blue half of Manchester’s perspective, was that of Samir Nasri. Much maligned since his £25m move two years ago from Arsenal, the 26-year-old showed just why he was worthy of a hefty price tag. Covering more distance than anyone else on the field and playing a part in two of the Blues’ goals before scoring the fourth, Nasri came into his own. With the mercurial David Silva missing from the starting line-up, his absence was barely noticed given the manner in which the Frenchman deputised.

As laudable as the City performance was the spotlight may well focus on the inept display from Manchester United. Wayne Rooney’s performance the only positive for Moyes on a day of many negatives. The England striker’s sublime free-kick minutes from time was not even celebrated such was its irrelevance. But for Moyes the hard work will start in earnest when United face Liverpool in the Capital One Cup on Wednesday. The 50-year-old Scot was said to have given his players the infamous United ‘hairdryer’ on Sunday, though whether it’s as effective as his predecessor’s remains to be seen.

Whilst the defensive errors which ultimately cost United three goals can be both attributed to the players on the pitch and ironed out, Moyes must take responsibility for the way he dithered on the sidelines. At half-time, 2-0 down and looking second best in every position, Moyes needed to bring at least one of his benched attacking trio of Javier Hernandez, Nani and Shinji Kagawa onto the field. With Ashley Young struggling to get anywhere near City’s formidable right of Pablo Zabaleta and Jesus Navas and Antonio Valencia repeatedly failing to track Aleksandar Kolarov’s bursting runs, City were having incredible joy down the flanks – something unheard of under Roberto Mancini.

Yet it was the introduction of Tom Cleverley, an extra presence in the United midfield, coupled with City perhaps taking their foot off the accelerator that saw United commendably bring themselves back into the game but it was too little too late with the Reds 4-0 down. Rooney’s free-kick following an over-zealous challenge from Matija Nastasic was sensational, but the response of the 27-year-old, who broke the record for the most goals scored in a Manchester derby, told its own story. United were down and out.

With a scoreline emphasising such domination it is easy to compare it to City’s 6-1 mauling of United at Old Trafford two seasons ago. But the performance on Sunday deserves more merit than that of the 6-1. The result at Old Trafford the season before last was a one-off with United naively pressing at 3-1 with 10 men and only minutes remaining. Sunday saw City boss the game from the start.

Though Kompany and co. will play down its significance, the result will send shockwaves across the Premier League. With just five games played it is still far too early to talk about potential title winners, though one thing is clear. The City camp appears much happier under Pellegrini than they were last season under Mancini.

If Manchester City do not win the league this season only one man is to blame…

When the final whistle blows at the Etihad Stadium on Sunday May 13th an inquest will begin, regardless of whether Manchester City will have been crowned champions or not. With seven games remaining and a five point gap between them and league leaders Manchester United it seems an unlikely task. The optimists in the blue half of Manchester will claim that with United still having to play their title rivals City at the Etihad Stadium as well as needing to visit Everton and Sunderland before the season finishes it is not all over. The more pessimistic blues will admit that the title seems likely to head back to Old Trafford.

If Manchester City do fail in their pursuit of the Premier League title then there can be only one man to blame. Roberto Mancini’s side seem to have fallen at the last hurdle and are stumbling towards the finish line. There is time to rectify it but it is now out of their hands and that is where the inquest will begin. Having dominated the league for the majority of the season and seen a healthy goal advantage slip away questions will be asked of Mancini by the City hierarchy. The recent slump has happened at the worst possible time and has left many questioning whether City had the nerve and experience to stay the distance.

It is not just the stuttering league form that has raised eyebrows in the boardroom however; Mancini’s handling of internal difficulties such as the Carlos Tévez situation and his persistence in standing by Mario Balotelli are also causing problems.

When the young Italian eventually matures he may become a world class player but at the moment his talent remains described as ‘potential’. He has shown glimpses of his incredible skill on a number of occasions this season yet his general demeanour both on and off the pitch overshadows that. Whether he is setting his house ablaze with fireworks or driving around Manchester city centre in his Bentley handing out £20 notes, the Blues’ enigmatic striker is certainly favoured by Mancini. It is this favouritism though which could cost Mancini his job. On the one hand it is admirable that the manager has such faith in Balotelli yet, on the other, it could be seen as blind loyalty and one which is not benefiting the club.

Sir Alex Ferguson called it “desperation” but City saw it as moving on and making the best out of a bad situation. Carlos Tévez’ return to Manchester has received a mixed reaction. Some are willing to accept his apology, draw a line in the sand and move on – after all he is a wonderful footballer. Others however, cannot accept his apology and do not want him near the club. It was a fine balancing act for Mancini, a chance to show that nobody, despite their immense talent, is bigger than the club. He got it wrong.

Roberto Mancini appears to be feeling the pressure as the title race hots up.

 

Back in November it was clear that Mancini did not want Tévez to play for him ever again. He had disgraced himself, embarrassed the club and the manager but more importantly shown a complete lack of respect to everybody associated to Manchester City by refusing to come on as a substitute. The response from the team was sensational Premier League form and a prolonged spell at the top of the table. The response from Tévez was a five month holiday in Argentina and a refusal to apologise. It could have been so much easier if he had apologised straight away. Having said that, knowing Tévez, it probably took him those five months to learn how to say the word ‘sorry’ in English.

Despite this City have improved once again under Mancini, and although it is likely they will finish trophy less it is another step in the right direction. He deserves another season to continue building a side which is capable of staying the distance and progressing further in Europe but it remains to be seen if he will get it. With Jose Mourinho’s name being touted as a possible replacement there may be another managerial change at the Etihad Stadium.

Although unlucky with the injury and suspension of club captain Vincent Kompany at key points during the title challenge, Mancini has to take the blame for the demise of City’s season. To have such a healthy league position at the half way stage and to now be trailing United by five points is inexcusable. At times this season Mancini has had a cool exterior, yet at others he seems to be feeling the pressure. His failure to shake Tony Pulis’ hand at the Britannia Stadium a few weeks ago and subsequent refusal to speak to the media was not only undignified and unsporting, but also a sign that he was maybe cracking up. After all, Stoke City played as expected. They were strong, aggressive and difficult to beat.

It has been apparent for weeks that City’s maestro David Silva is either carrying an injury, fatigued or has just hit a bad run of form yet Mancini’s persistence in playing him is highlighting a problem within his team. With Samir Nasri not hitting the heights that many expected him to, Silva has been the main playmaker and it is finally taking its toll on the Spanish wizard. The Blues’ over reliance on Silva being the creative force indicates that Mancini is still not satisfied with the squad he has. He lacks quality wingers to change his team’s style of play and the lack of width has been identified as a major problem in recent weeks. Despite the charging runs of the likes of Gael Clichy and Micah Richards, width is a concern especially following the disappointing performances of Adam Johnson and Nasri over the season. With rumours suggesting City are lining up a move for Eden Hazard, expect Johnson to be sold in the summer with Liverpool a possible destination. They have a habit of overpaying for players who flatter to deceive.

With millions having been ploughed into the club, the Abu Dhabi based owners are looking for a return on their investment. It remains to be seen if they have the patience to acknowledge that despite a potentially disappointing end to the season Mancini has improved the side. There will be departures and arrivals in the summer that much is clear, but whether Roberto Mancini will be one of the departures only the Sheikh knows.

Will Mancini be the manager next season? Do you want him to stay? Leave your comments below.