MANCHESTER // The Manchester City that Pablo Zabaleta joined in August 2008 was a very different club. Thaksin Shinawatra’s ownership was unravelling. Money was in short supply, the future seemingly bleak.
So the club’s reigning player of the year is well-placed to judge the progress they have made in the subsequent five years. The turning point came a day into Zabaleta’s City career when Sheikh Mansour’s Abu Dhabi group completed a shock takeover.
Tuesday could be another landmark occasion if, as seems likely, City qualify for the knock-out stages of the Uefa Champions League for the first time.
“It is time for this club to take a step forward,” Zabaleta said.
In one respect, a win against CSKA Moscow would be a giant leap, yet it is also a stepping stone en route to their eventual destination.
“Hopefully in the next few years we can be one of the top clubs in Europe,” he said.
Victory would take City to nine points, and while CSKA could end on the same total, the Premier League club’s superior record in their clashes would mean they finished ahead of their Russian rivals. Only the improbable scenario of City losing their final two games and the Czech minnows Viktoria Plzen winning their final three matches could deny manager Manuel Pellegrini’s men a place in the last 16.
“If we can qualify for the next round, it will be great for this club,” Zabaleta said. “I think in the last four or five years, this club has been improving incredibly. The owner’s been spending money to try and build one of the best teams in Europe.
“We won the FA Cup and the Premier League, but the Champions League is a different competition. Sometimes it takes time.”
City could be both early and slow in reaching the last 16. They could qualify with two games remaining, but only after two disappointing campaigns in pools dubbed the group of death. They claimed 10 points against Bayern Munich, Napoli and Villarreal in 2010-11, but just three from games with Ajax, Borussia Dortmund and Real Madrid last season.
“In the last two seasons, our performance in the Champions League was really poor,” Zabaleta said.
Now the focus is on the future.
“We all know what happened the last two years – they couldn’t go to the round of 16,” Pellegrini said. “For Manchester City it [would be] a very great achievement.”
He has piloted Villarreal to the semi-finals and Malaga to the last eight of the competition, a track record that encourages hopes of a repeat with City.
“It is not easy to talk what can happen in the future,” Pellegrini said. “We have a very good squad and the minimum thing this squad needs is to qualify for the round of 16.”
That squad are, once again, without injured captain Vincent Kompany and striker Stevan Jovetic, while Costel Pantilimon will continue in place of the benched Joe Hart in goal.
Pellegrini argues the break will benefit the error-prone Hart.
“It is a good thing to have a rest after playing so many matches,” the Chilean said. “Nobody wants to be out, but he thinks it will be useful for him.”
Yet it means Hart, who had been ever-present in their Champions League campaigns, will be relegated to watching on a night that, for City, has been a long time coming.
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