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Friday 25 May 2018

Pablo Zabaleta marvels at Manchester City progress

Pablo Zabaleta is one of Manchester City's longest-serving players
Pablo Zabaleta is one of Manchester City's longest-serving players

Tuesday's Champions League semi-final against Real Madrid will be a proud reminder for Pablo Zabaleta of just how far Manchester City have come.

The Argentinian full-back joined the club from Espanyol on August 31, 2008. The following day, the Abu Dhabi United Group completed its takeover and signed Brazilian superstar Robinho as a statement of intent.

Robinho lasted only two seasons but the money injected into the club by Sheikh Mansour has had the desired effect.

City have won six pieces of domestic silverware in the last five years and the one disappointment - their failure to make an impression in Europe - has finally been put to bed this season.

Their two-legged win over Paris St Germain in the quarter-finals was a landmark victory and saw them join European heavyweights Real, Atletico Madrid and Bayern Munich in the last four.

Zabaleta has been there through it all, and he said: "I never thought we would be talking about the semi-finals of the Champions League when I first came, but it was amazing how I saw the club change.

"The way we have improved as a club and a team and worked so hard for so many years as a group of players, trying to make the club bigger and better every season.

"I think we are in a moment where we are enjoying ourselves. In the Premier League this season we are not fighting for the title.

"We know how hard it is when you are fighting for so many competitions to win all of them. But at this stage, you should at least be fighting for something. That is what all the biggest clubs do when they play big competitions.

"We are very close to reaching a Champions League final, we are playing for a top-four spot in the Premier League and we won the Capital One Cup, so we can finish this season in a great way.

"In the days when I first came, I never thought I would achieve those moments where we won the league twice, the FA Cup, the Charity Shield, the Capital One Cup. I feel very proud about that."

City will undoubtedly be underdogs going into the two legs against Real, whose experience of winning the biggest titles at home and abroad is second to none.

The likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale have been there and done it but Zabaleta believes the novelty of the situation for City can help them.

He said: "It's one of the biggest nights for this club in the history of Manchester City. Fans, players - we have been waiting for this moment for so many years and now the chance is there.

"They have one of the greatest squads in Spain and sometimes, in those moments, the big players can make the difference.

"But in a semi-final anything can happen. What this team has got at the moment is the belief and confidence that it's the first time we are in the semi-final. Everyone is so excited about that.

"We need to do well on Tuesday. Playing in the second game in the Bernabeu will be really hard. You saw (in the quarter-finals) that Wolfsburg won the first leg 2-0 but then they lost 3-2 (on aggregate) so it's going to be hard but we have the team to win against Real Madrid.

"We have to try and keep a clean sheet, we have to try to score at least one or two goals. That will be the key for the two legs, not to concede goals playing here."

Despite the star quality in Real's squad, Zabaleta is happy to be facing Zinedine Zidane's side rather than Atletico or Bayern.

Asked if Real were easier opponents than the other two, he said: "In the semi-finals of the Champions League you cannot have an easy rival but maybe a little, because of the characteristics of their game.

"We are two teams that like to play, that like to be offensive, and because of this it'll be a pretty open game with a lot of chances and the key is in not conceding goals."

Zabaleta made his 300th appearance for City in Saturday's 4-0 victory over Stoke but it remains to be seen how many more he will make.

Bacary Sagna has been first choice at right-back this season and Zabaleta was non-committal on his plans for next season.

He said: "It is a good landmark, and I am very proud. It has been eight very intense years.

"We still have five games at the moment, maybe six if we reach the Champions League final, so I am just thinking about finishing this season in the best way."

Press Association

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