Manchester City great Pablo Zabaleta denied the grand send-off he deserves

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - It ranks as an underwhelming, unsuitable ending for one of the great warriors of his generation. Tuesday is officially Pablo Zabaleta’s last day in English football. He leaves West Ham without having played in four months, with their fate undecided and with the possibility his legacy will be tarnished by relegation.

And yet even in anti-climax, there is something honourable and something fitting. Zabaleta turned down a contract extension because he would not be fit to give his trademark 100 per cent.

It means his last game came at the ground where he has a lifetime season ticket. He was serenaded by the Manchester City fans who adored him at the Etihad Stadium in February. Three years at West Ham seem a postscript to a nine-season stay further north. Few adopted Mancunians come from 7,000 miles away but the ultra-committed Argentine became regarded as one of their own.

Micah Richards has a unique perspective on the career of one of the Premier League’s most popular imports. For years, he was Zabaleta’s rival for the right-back spot: ultimately it was a battle the Englishman lost.

In his earlier days, a big-match player was often used at left-back by Roberto Mancini, especially against elite opponents. It was testament to Zabaleta’s can-do mentality.

“There were a lot of games where I played right-back and he played left-back,” Richards reflected. “I have always had respect for Zabaleta. At City, he came as a centre midfielder, a holding midfielder, he played a lot of games in midfield, then left-back, right-back, right wing, left wing, filling in for people.”

But the person most affected by his refusal to accept defeat was the right-back Richards. “It was my place to lose really because ability-wise I believe I had more than him,” he said. “But he had a great rapport with the fans.

"No matter how he played, he would always give 100 per cent. Some players work their backsides off every single week but to fans it might not look like they are working but when you had Zabaleta on the pitch, you just knew you were going to war with him.

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Tottenham v West Ham ratings

TOTTENHAM RATINGS: Hugo Lloris - 6: World Cup winner was a bystander throughout. Clean sheets don't come any easier. EPA

Serge Aurier - 7: A much improved performance from the Ivorian who played as a one-man flank on Spurs' right-hand side. AP Photo

Davinson Sanchez - 7: Went about his work efficiently. AP

Eric Dier - 7: Another fine display from the Englishman who is staking a claim to be Jose Mourinho's first-choice centre-back. AFP

Ben Davies - 6: Steady in defence though given a few uncomfortable moments by Jarrod Bowen. AFP

Moussa Sissoko - 7: Some sloppy passing but the French powerhouse is a mainstay of this Spurs midfield. AFP

Giovani Lo Celso - 8: The game's outstanding player. The Argentine was pure silk. AFP

Lucas Moura - 7: Fluffed a golden chance to score early on but Spurs always look a better side with him in the team. AFP

Dele Alli - 6: Suspended for the Manchester United game but showed some nice touches. AFP

Son Heung-min - 6: Had a goal chalked off for a marginal offside. Supplied the pass for Harry Kane's goal but was otherwise quiet. AFP

Harry Kane - 8: Had several chances before he finally broke his 2020 goal duck with a calm finish. Looked back to his old self against an admittedly poor West Ham side. AP

SUBS. Erik Lamela (Alli, 59') - 7: The winger made some timely interventions to thwart the rarity that were West Ham's counter attacks. Reuters

Steven Bergwijn (Moura, 70') - 7: Had a chance to equal Rafael van der Vaart's record of scoring in each of his first four home games. AFP

Harry Winks (Son, 85') - 6: Did what Harry Winks does and kept hold of the ball. Reuters

WEST HAM RATINGS: Lukasz Fabianski - 6: Couldn't do much about either goal. Dealt with Lo Celso's corners well. EPA

Ryan Fredericks - 5: Seemed determine to show a variety of Spurs attackers a route to goal instead of forcing them out wide. AFP

Fabian Balbuena - 6: No-nonsense defending from the tough-as-nails Paraguayan. Getty Images

Issa Diop - 6: Stuck to his task manfully in the face of wave after wave of Spurs attacks. EPA

Aaron Cresswell - 6: Offered little going forward. AFP

Mark Noble - 6: Constantly running back towards his own goal as Spurs dominated possession. Tired badly in the second half before being replaced. EPA

Declan Rice - 7: Was a human shield in front of West Ham's defence and showed some good touches and fine passes going forward. AFP

Tomas Soucek - 6: His backheeled goal from a corner was desperately unlucky on the Czech. PA

Jarrod Bowen - 7: struck the post with a swinging effort late on. Showed good energy on a night when there wasn't much reward for it. AP

Michail Antonio - 7: Ran his socks off in a losing effort. Fed off crumbs and took some hard knocks from Dier and Sanchez. Getty Images

Pablo Fornals - 5: Miscued West Ham's best chance of the match. AP Photo

Felipe Anderson (Fornals, 70') - 6: Offered much-needed attacking impetus. PA

Manuel Lanzini (Noble, 70') - 6: Argentine midfielder showed some good touches. Getty Images

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“I knew if he would get a head-start on me or if I got injured, it would be so hard to get back in the team because he was so consistent in the way he played. He was borderline impossible to dislodge because of the standards he set.”

So it proved. Richards was the regular for much of the 2011-12 title-winning campaign but was displaced for the final few weeks. Then, when he had an injury-hit campaign, Zabaleta deservedly won City’s Player of the Year award in 2012-13. A talismanic figure was a force of nature, forever defiant in a disappointing season.

Zabaleta joined City weeks before Sheikh Mansour’s 2008 takeover. As City upgraded their squad and expanded their ambitions, it was a question of who rose to the challenge. Zabaleta did.

“His attacking had improved because he was playing with better players,” Richards said. “With his defending, the timing of his challenges was spot on and he was a real leader, he would fill in for Vincent Kompany and he took his game to the next level. Every single week, he was seven or eight out of 10. After I got injured, I was never getting back into the team because he set the bar so high.”

The West Ham years have featured the same idiosyncratic brand of commitment, albeit with a gradual loss of pace, power and ultimately his place. But at his peak, Zabaleta was a buccaneering, indefatigable presence. As Richards recalled: “He became a Man City favourite and one of the best right-backs in the league.”

Updated: June 30, 2020 08:27 AM

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