x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Pablo Zabaleta: a player for all positions

The utility man speaks to Richard Jolly about how his versatility can often work for and against him at Manchester City.

Pablo Zabaleta, centre, warms up in training as he prepares for tonight’s game against Red Bull Salzburg.
Pablo Zabaleta, centre, warms up in training as he prepares for tonight’s game against Red Bull Salzburg.

Squad rotation tends to be one of the thornier topics in football. Essential for clubs who anticipate playing a minimum of 50 fixtures per season, it nonetheless has an almost unrivalled capacity to antagonise players, pundits and public alike.

Amid the constant drip of stories suggesting benched players are unhappy, a more adult interpretation of the theory was provided by Pablo Zabaleta.

Manchester City's sizeable pool of players has the obvious consequence that established and excellent footballers can find themselves on the margins of the team and the Argentine is a case in point.

Likely to return to the City side against Red Bull Salzburg tonight after being banned for Saturday's draw at Stoke City, he has been an ever-present in Europe but half of his appearances in domestic competitions have been as a replacement.

Rather than complaining it is, he says, a question of showing respect to his fellow professionals.

"The players have to accept it is difficult to play in every game," he said.

"So if you have to be on the bench you have to know that the player playing in your position has to be good for the team, because we are all in the same boat."

Zabaleta's status as a multi-purpose footballer enhances his chances of playing. The 25-year-old operated in midfield against Poland's Lech Poznan in City's last Europa League match as well as filling both full-back positions.

It is evident that Roberto Mancini, the manager, appreciates the Argentina international's adaptability and work ethic.

Indeed, while far from an automatic choice, Zabaleta's seniority and maturity were reflected when he was granted the captain's armband in Poland and it is another indication of his qualities that AC Milan are reported to be among his admirers.

"We have a lot of players in every position and the competition is really, really hard," he added. "You have to give your best in every opportunity.

"I have played left-back but right-back is my natural position, where I feel more comfortable.

"But I have to be ready to play wherever the manager wants me to play.

"But we have a lot of players in the squad and we all have to be ready to play, and you can see in our players' eyes that this season we want to win something."

The Europa League, where Mancini has rotated enthusiastically so far, is a feasible target. Tonight's game offers an opportunity to seal progress to the last 32 before Group A concludes with its glamour game, City's trip to Turin to face Juventus.

Expectations are something Zabaleta is accustomed to dealing with.

"It is now normal that everyone focuses on Manchester City because the club has spent a lot of money and has a great squad," he said. "It's a pressure that we have."

Tonight's match should be his first appearance since last Sunday's 4-1 Premier League win at Fulham, which included the full-back's second strike for the club, a rasping shot from outside the box.

"As a defender, I don't have the opportunity to score many goals in the season and when you score a goal like that, you feel happy," he said.

Zabaleta was speaking at the opening of a £35 million (Dh203m) patient treatment centre at the Christie Hospital in Withington, South Manchester.

Zabaleta lives in the neighbouring suburb of Didsbury and, as he met cancer sufferers, it was apparent that the native of Buenos Aires recognised the need for players to be part of the community, even if their roots are thousands of miles away.

"Our job is to play football, but it's nice to do things like this and when you go to the hospital and see people with problems, you try to help them," he added. "This is most important."

sports@thenational.ae

12.05am, Aljazeera Sport +10