Man City fan favourite Pablo Zabaleta deserves praise entering home finale
Manchester City's unsteady passage through the turmoil of 2016-17 will in the next five days produce two more seismic events to add to the club's fervent sense of drama.
Victory over West Bromwich Albion on Tuesday will put City in the driving seat for the final day's European reckonings. The bigger the margin of victory, the softer the landing will be on Sunday when Pep Guardiola's charges visit Watford.
The match with West Brom will be the last home game of the season and will, therefore, offer the supporters a final chance to show appreciation to one of the club's all-time stalwarts, Pablo Zabaleta.
It is often the case in these days of easy hyperbole that such situations and their intrinsic merit are overblown to a level where many lose sight of reality, but in the case of the craggy Argentina international, every word of praise coming his way has been fully and utterly deserved. Zabaleta represents all that is good in a world of modern football that has shed itself of so much of its ideological roots.
That Zabaleta arrived at the Etihad in the weeks leading up to the club's takeover by Sheikh Mansour only serves to underline what a talisman he has been, unrelenting in his efforts while remaining low maintenance in a very high-maintenance environment.
His debut, against Chelsea at the Etihad in Sept. 2008, passed with hardly a mention from that weekend's press as his blustering efforts were lost in the flashbulbs of Robinho's picturesque Premier League entrance on the very same day. We did not realise at the time, but it was highly apt that Zabaleta's workmanlike introduction should be overshadowed by the ephemeral, graceful but temporary flight of Robinho. Ever since that moment, he has been putting in the hard graft so that others more talented might strut their elegant stuff.
That Zabaleta's departure provokes more hand-wringing and moist handkerchiefs than probably any other player in City's modern history is also testament to his courage, heart and honesty. He is the player who married into Manchester the city as well as Manchester City. He married the famous Argentinean garra with English blood and thunder to create a force of propulsion in City's defence that was hard to take your eyes off.
Here was a man dedicated to his profession, but dedicated to a lot more besides. In an era of multimillion-pound contracts, he has earned every last cent of his and probably deserved more.
He has slowed of late, unsurprisingly considering the gargantuan effort he has put into the cause, but his contribution to City's flight from floundering nobodies to bejewelled contenders has remained constant throughout.
Perhaps his spell at Espanyol prepared him for the fight needed when representing a side that played second fiddle in their own city. Arriving in Manchester in a period when Manchester United still ruled the roost and their manager confidently crowed that City would not be contenders "in his lifetime" may well have appealed to the Argentina defender's unquenchable spirit.
It has transpired, of course, and in less time than the ex-United manager's worse nightmare could have foreseen.
Within Zabaleta's stint at the club, City have not only bypassed their local rivals but they have stayed in front. This season will be the fourth consecutive season that City will finish above United in the Premier League, a feat unheard of since 1972-75, when United even had to be relegated to make absolutely sure City could finish ahead of them. Five out of the past six seasons City have now prevailed in the Manchester stakes.
And all the time the fans could point to Zabaleta and say "here stands the life and soul of our club," this pounding, thrusting figure, often bandaged and bleeding, but never cowed.
Now the time has come to take leave of this indomitable figure, who has been omnipresent at City's great triumphs over the past eight years. He will remain a central figure in the folklore of the club, perhaps -- with Vincent Kompany -- the last of the true one-club men to grace the Etihad pitch. For modern times require fresh legs and young hearts. The new guard is replacing the old.
Come the end of the match with West Brom, the spotlight will fall on a gnarled figure covered in the battle scars of a truly epic career. Unlike his near-anonymous debut, 55,000 people will rise to acclaim one of the club's greatest-ever players, and if there is a dry eye in the house as the curtain falls on the 327-game stint of Pablo Javier Zabaleta Girod at Manchester City Football Club, mine will not be one of them.
Simon is one of ESPN FC's Manchester City bloggers. Follow him on Twitter @bifana_bifana.