One name dominates the Man City headlines this morning… Pablo Zabaleta.
The Argentine, who will call time on his career at the Club at the end of the season, stepped out onto the Etihad Stadium pitch donning sky blue for the final time in the impressive 3-1 win over West Brom and received a deserved ovation.
Named Man of the Match for his years of service, despite being introduced from the bench on the hour mark, Zabaleta could not hold back the tears as the fans, players and staff gathered to thank him for his contributions and award him heartfelt parting gifts of a shirt emblazoned with 333 (his number of appearances) and a seasoncard for life.
Reflecting on an emotional night, the journalists of the footballing world agree it was a fitting tribute to a man who bleeds Blue and will go down in history as a bandage-sporting Club legend.
Writes ESPN’s David Mooney: “It isn't often that the football, especially when it's as enjoyable to watch as it was in Manchester City's 3-1 win over West Brom on Tuesday at the Etihad, takes a backseat.
“But the City fans were under no illusions; they wanted the job done quickly so they could enjoy Pablo Zabaleta's final home appearance for the club.
“That's exactly what they got, helped by West Brom's reluctance to do anything but sit deep, and it was the perfect send-off for the man who, in a nine-year spell, became a club legend.
“City's penetrative attacking took a short while to get going, but once they had begun to get in behind the visitors, they were cutting them open at will.
“A two-minute double-whammy of goals just before the half-hour mark killed off the away side, and Pep Guardiola's team showed some excellent movement and killer passing.
“Their pressing game to win back the ball was perfect for keeping Albion under the cosh.”
Mooney awarded Zabaleta top marks in his player ratings, explaining: “This 10 isn't for his contributions in the 28 or so minutes he played when replacing Silva but for his nine years of service to the club.
“Every touch was cheered by the home fans, he put in a traditional crunching challenge, and he worked the right flank just as he has done throughout his career in England.
“His closing speech had many a fan in the stands shedding a tear, and he almost made it to the end of his farewell without getting emotional.
“It was the perfect way for him to close a fantastic stay at Eastlands, and the club will miss him dearly.”
Ian Herbert of the Independent stated: “It was nothing less than a celebration; a collective service of thanksgiving for Pablo Zabaleta, against a West Bromwich Albion side whose utterly feeble contribution encapsulated what Arsene Wenger had been talking about on Monday when he railed against the ‘morals’ of those sides who ease off when their safety is secured.
“Argentinian flags were out for the serenading of Zabaleta on the last night of his nine memorable years at this stadium.
“The corazon de leon (‘heart of a lion’) banner made for him five years ago was held up in the defender’s presence for a last time and his arrival from the bench was the night’s most anticipated event.”
Herbert adds: “’A man bloodied and relentless in his pursuit of success,” is how City chairman Khaldoon al Mubarak chose to put it in the match programme.
“The game was effectively over in the one minute and 46 seconds it took City to score two goals just before the half mark.”
BT Sport echoed: “Following Saturday’s announcement he will be leaving this summer, City fans made clear in Zabaleta’s last home game as a Blues player their appreciation for his service, with banners paying tribute to the Argentinian defender being displayed in the stands and his name ringing around the ground in a range of chants.
“He received a rapturous reception when he started to warm up on the touchline early in the second half and an even bigger ovation when he came on just after the hour mark.
“Having helped his side see out the win – finishing the contest with the captain’s armband, given to him when Vincent Kompany went off in the 77th minute – Zabaleta was then honoured in an emotional post-match presentation.
“He seemed genuinely touched as he was presented with a lifetime season ticket and he thanked the fans.”
Zabaleta scooped the Man of the Match award across the board.
Squawka’s Muhammad Butt also paid tribute to the ‘adopted Mancunian’ and – like many – was also particularly impressed by De Bruyne.
On Zabaleta, he scribed: “This is his ninth season as a Manchester City player and it will be his last – a fact well recognised by the club and their fans.
“He leaves City with a sterling reputation among his peers, but should he have more?
“When you consider the best right-backs in Premier League history, two players immediately jump out: Gary Neville and Lee Dixon.
“Beyond that, Lauren and perhaps César Azpilicueta, but no one that you would say outshines Pablo Zabaleta, who in addition to years of consistent displays has also won two Premier League Titles, including scoring one of the three goals City needed against QPR to win the 2012 title.
“A legend of Manchester City Football Club. He will be missed.”
On De Bruyne’s performance, he mused: “It’s been obvious to everyone (well, except José Mourinho) that Kevin de Bruyne is a very special talent.
“But perhaps people didn’t understand just how special he could be. Pulled back into a deeper role by Guardiola earlier in the season, the Belgian international has developed phenomenally.
“West Brom he was playing on the wing (not one specifically he would switch) but kept on drifting inside his wingers. Living in the half-space, the Baggies simply couldn’t get anywhere near him. Elusive wasn’t the word, he was devastating.
“De Bruyne’s run and cross to create City’s opening goal was bafflingly brilliant. He surged onto Sergio Aguero’s flick with such precise timing and control before weaving through a couple of players and firing it across goal to give Gabriel Jesus a tap-in.”
Analysing Jesus’ display, Butt continues: “Oh my word, what a player Manchester City have here.
“Chased by the biggest clubs in the world, Gabriel Jesus was drawn by the allure of Pep Guardiola and now he belongs to them.
“This season, despite his youth and his inexperience with European and especially English football, he has looked wonderful.
“Had he not gotten injured for two months soon after his debut, who knows how far City would have actually pushed eventual Champions Chelsea?
“The difference in the quality of City’s play between when he’s in the team and when he isn’t is simply staggering for a player of his age and position.”
In other news, there’s a snippet of transfer gossip (as always) as the Daily Star believe City and Chelsea will lock horns in a bid to sign Kyle Walker.
According to Luke Gardener: “Neither Chelsea or City have made an approach for the England international but the reports say they are willing to bid more than £40m for his services.
“Walker has four years left on his contract at Spurs meaning there is no pressure for Mauricio Pochettino to sell.”