Manchester City's Pablo Zabaleta preparing for an 'emotional' farewell
MANCHESTER -- Pablo Zabaleta says it will be an emotional night when he bids farewell to Manchester City fans in the final home game of the season on Tuesday.
City face West Bromwich Albion at the Etihad Stadium in Zabaleta's last home game for the club after it was announced that he will leave at the end of the season when his contract expires.
The defender has become a favourite with the City fans since he joined from Espanyol in 2008 -- going on to make 332 appearances and winning two Premier League titles.
"It will be an emotional moment for me. It will probably be my last game in a City shirt in front of the fans. The appreciation from the fans has been massive," he told reporters. "I would like to say thank you to them for the love and support they have shown me during my nine years at the club.
"As a player I've done what every single player should do for the club they play for, which is try to perform well on the field every time, give my all for the team, for the club and this is something that fans really appreciate from players. That's why it will be a very emotional moment. It's something that I'm prepared for and I will try to enjoy it like a kid of 10 years old."
Zabaleta joined City nine years ago, shortly before owner Sheikh Mansour bought the club, but kept his place to become a crucial part of their recent success.
As well as two titles, the 32-year-old has won two League Cups and the FA Cup, while he helped City reach last season's Champions League semifinal.
And he says he is proud to have played his part in City's huge transformation -- particularly in the way they have been more successful than rivals Manchester United in recent years.
"When I first came to Manchester I felt like when I was in Barcelona at Espanyol, we were not the main club in the city -- we can't say the same thing now," Zabaleta said.
"I remember at that time [Sir Alex] Ferguson and the 'noisy neighbours,' and this is something that I have been since that time! For me, we couldn't let people say something like that about us.
"I thought if they call us the noisy neighbours then let's make more noise in the city, let's prove that we are a club that is looking to achieve important things, maybe one day be the main club in the city and take this club forward to the next step to make this club better.
"As a player you are happy to play games on the field and this is something you enjoy the most, but if you really care about the club, you feel something inside of you that you want to create something big and that was one of the main things for me.
"We had to work really hard to become a better club and look at where we are today. I am very happy and proud to have been part of this football club."
City captain Vincent Kompany has led the tributes to Zabaleta, telling reporters: "He epitomises what the fans have loved about City for so many years, even before our era.
"He's tough, he gets into challenges where usually he has no right to win them, but he gets out on the winning end. More than anything it's his passion and his commitment to the club. He's an exceptional professional and someone who has been extremely reliable.
"If you need to go to war in the big games, you know you've got Zabba with you. You need a guy like Kun [Sergio Aguero] to score the goals but sometimes a last-ditch challenge, which are things that often get forgotten quite easily, but teammates and players like us we remember those and it's a feeling that you have. And with him you have that feeling he could save the game."
Zabaleta has started just one Premier League since January and City boss Pep Guardiola has a decision whether to bring him back to face West Brom with a top-four place still not guaranteed.
"Pablo is a real legend in what he has done in the club," Guardiola told a news conference. "He has helped with his teammates at the club to make a step forward, to try to compete to qualify for the Champions League, sometimes to win the Premier League, to be in Europe three or four times in a row, after they had gone 30 years and never been in Europe. That's why Pablo Zabaleta, in these kind of things, is so, so important.
"Pablo teaches the new generation, the people who are coming in, what it means to be at the club, what it means to be in the Premier League, what many, many things mean."
Jonathan is ESPN FC's Manchester City correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @jonnysmiffy.