MANCHESTER, United Kingdom, May 15 – Pablo Zabaleta deserves a victorious finale to mark the end of his nine-year Manchester City career, manager Pep Guardiola said Monday.
The Argentinian full-back is leaving the Etihad Stadium when his contract expires at the end of the season, with Premier League rivals West Ham the 32-year-old’s likeliest destination.
Zabaleta joined City from Espanyol for £6.45 million ($8.3 million, 7.6 million euros) on August 31, 2008, a day before the Abu Dhabi United Group, led by billionaire Sheikh Mansour, completed a takeover that transformed the club’s fortunes.
Because of the timing of his arrival, and the service he has given to City, Zabaleta has become closely associated with the modern era at the Etihad Stadium, while the quality of his performances has made him a popular figure with the club’s supporters.
He was a key member of the side that won the Premier League title in 2012, scoring the opening goal in the dramatic 3-2 final-day win over Queens Park Rangers that ensured City became champions of England for the first time since 1968.
Zabaleta has won two league titles with City, as well as the FA Cup once, in 2011, and the League Cup twice.
He is expected to make his final home appearance for the club when they play West Bromwich Albion at the Etihad Stadium on Tuesday, five days before City complete their Premier League campaign at Watford.
– ‘Amazing Impact’ –
Guardiola hopes Zabaleta finishes his time at the club by helping them secure qualification for next season’s Champions League, with Guardiola’s men currently ahead of Arsenal in the race for fourth place.
“I have a lot of respect for Pablo,” Guardiola told a news conference on Monday. “His impact here has been amazing. Nine years he has been here. To replace that you need someone who has been here for nine years. That is a long time, and so it is not easy.
“He was the first player to come here when the owners arrived. He has helped the club to where it is right now.
“He deserves all of the fans to come to the West Brom game. I hope all the fans can come to support us, as we are playing for a lot of important things, but also so they can express gratitude for one of the most important players in the history of Manchester City.”
While Zabaleta will feature as City look to complete the season in fine style, midfielder Fabian Delph will be unavailable.
Delph has not played since the victory over Hull City on April 8 because of a leg problem, and will miss the end of the campaign.
Centre-back John Stones, however, has recovered from a muscle problem.
Guardiola, meanwhile, remained guarded on the fate of the six out-of-contract players whose futures all remain unclear.
The manager indicated last week he had already decided whether to keep Yaya Toure, Gael Clichy, Bacary Sagna, Willy Caballero, Jesus Navas and Tosin Adarabioyo.
Offers have been made to Navas and Adarabioyo, and Toure is also likely to be given a contract if City qualify for the Champions League.
However, Guardiola insisted his focus and that of his players must remain on trying to finish as high as they can in the table, with third place still a possibility.
“After next Sunday, we will start talking with individuals,” the Spaniard said. “I know you are curious but now it is important to stay in the present.
“If we didn’t play for anything it would be different. But we are playing for a lot of important things,” the former Barcelona and Bayern Munich manager added
“Hopefully, the players are focussed on that.”