Friday 22 September 2017

Zabaleta sounds warning note as Sky Blues set out to avoid joining list of sporting calamities

Pablo Zabaleta believes Manchester City are benefiting from the experience of their 2012 title success
Pablo Zabaleta believes Manchester City are benefiting from the experience of their 2012 title success

Tim Rich

On Merseyside they will dredge up all the old stories. How Bayern Munich printed travel information for the 1981 European Cup final before they blew the semi-final against Liverpool.

Of how Jean van der Velde, needing only a double bogey to win the Open at Carnoustie, found himself ankle deep in water. Those with a deep sense of history might like to mention the Wimbledon semi-finals of 1927 when Bill Tilden found himself winning 6-2, 6-2, 5-1 and, 30-0 up, still failed to make the final.

If Manchester City do not take a point at home to West Ham to secure the Premier League, they will join Van der Velde, Tilden and Devon Loch on the list of the biggest collapses in sport.

The message from the City dressing- room in the wake of Wednesday night's 4-0 win over Aston Villa was uncompromising. The celebrations could wait until the final whistle on Sunday. The memories of Queens Park Rangers were altogether too fresh.

That match is depicted on photographs 20 feet high on the Etihad Stadium walls. Had Sergio Aguero not scored with the final kick of the season, that match and its images would have been buried into deepest recesses of the club. Nobody would ever have talked of it.

The image Andrea Pirlo painted of the Milan dressing-room after they had squandered a 3-0 lead to Liverpool in the European Cup final would have been theirs.

"Insomnia, rage, depression, a sense of nothingness. I no longer felt like a footballer, and that was devastating enough," wrote Pirlo in his autobiography. "Worse, I no longer felt like a man."

Pablo Zabaleta knows how close Manchester City came to being infected with what Pirlo called 'Istanbul syndrome'. It is why he claimed the club could not relax, even now.

"Every single player knows we have done nothing yet," said the Argentinian defender. Most of our players have been here for more than two years so we have experienced that final game against QPR and we don't want that again. The inspiration is that we know we are 90 minutes from another title."

West Ham, however, are slightly different from Queens Park Rangers. In May 2012, Mark Hughes' side came to Manchester knowing that if they lost and Bolton won, they would be relegated. City had to match Manchester United's result at Sunderland. Here, Manuel Pellegrini's side can afford to drop two points and still come through on goal difference.

Nevertheless, West Ham sides with nothing to play for have twice denied Manchester United league titles.

On the final day of the 1994-'95 season, Alex Ferguson observed: "I cannot believe that this five foot five winger (Michael Hughes) could cut in across our defence and side-foot the ball home."

The United manager was rather less philosophical three years earlier when he had stood in the press room at Upton Park and shouted that it was "obscene" that an already-relegated West Ham should have denied his team a title that had been so obviously theirs.

Liverpool's biggest hope might be the crowd, not their own but Manchester City's. The Etihad Stadium on Wednesday night was a strange place.

It was not full because a man threatening to hurl himself from a motorway bridge had paralysed Manchester's traffic and those who made it there were as nervous and anxious as Liverpool's fans had been at Anfield when the usual early knockout blow failed to arrive against Chelsea.

By the interval, City had still not broken down Aston Villa and the players walked off not to boos but to shakes of the head.

"We were talking about this at half- time," said Zabaleta. "We needed to score to be a little bit calm and to calm the fans. When you are in that situation you can be a little nervous but the manager told us to keep moving the ball and we would get one chance to score – and that's how it was.

"We never felt nervous. Passion was the key to winning that game. We knew Aston Villa are a very disciplined team and that they would defend with players behind the ball and were doing a very good job tactically."

He expects West Ham to do the same on Sunday and he expects Pellegrini to respond in the same way, ordering his full-backs to attack from the flanks – a move that triggered the first goal on Wednesday night.

They probably need only one against a side that has never recorded a league victory at the Etihad Stadium but, until it arrives, they will dream on Merseyside about Van der Velde, Bill Tilden and all the other defeats snatched from the jaws of victory.

(© Independent News Service)

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