When Pablo Zabaleta, a little known unheralded Argentine defensive midfielder made his Premier League debut, the eyes of the football world fell upon Manchester City.
But the combative £6.45m signing from Espanyol – bought the day before Sheikh Mansour acquired the club in late August 2008 – was a million miles away from being the subject of the global gaze.
No, that ‘honour’ belonged to Brazilian ‘superstar’ Robinho, the £32.5m acquisition from Real Madrid, whose arrival symbolised City’s new found financial muscle from the Middle East.
Robinho duly obliged with a wonderful 20-yard, Samba style free kick as City took a 13th minute lead against Luiz Scholari’s Chelsea, before the home side eventually succumbed 3-1.
Zabaleta, on the other hand, had a difficult time adjusting to the pace of the game, slogging through alongside the likes of Michael Ball, Didi Hamann and Gelson Fernandes.
Whoever could have foreseen that the man from Buenos Aires would go on to be Saint Pablo of Mancunia, a living Manchester City legend, whilst his South American compatriot would be banished, having become as flaky as Mr Kipling’s finest pastry.
Zaba is quite simply loved and adored by every City fan – man, woman and child – and the romance hit new heights at a freezing Britannia Stadium as the swashbuckling right back plundered the FA Cup spoils.
His 85th minute winner in a typically tough and uncompromising affair with Tony Pulis’ Stoke City, was a fitting finale for a gargantuan Man-of-the-Match showing.
Starting a beautifully flowing five-man move deep in his own half, Zaba covered 70 yards before smashing the ball home with the outside of his right boot, sending 4,500 travelling Blues into raptures.
He kissed the shirt…and by God he meant it!
It speaks volumes of Zabaleta that he eclipsed a wonderful effort from the rapidly adjusting and highly accomplished Javi Garcia, all grit and determination, in this most physical of encounters.
There are plenty who have questioned the suitability of the Spaniard during his formative days, weeks and months in Manchester but the ex-Benfica man is coming on strong.
Along with Barry and Milner he laid the foundations for this significant victory – City’s first in 14 years in this tough Staffordshire arena.
The task of Roberto Mancini’s men was made all the easier by the noticeable absence of Stoke’s notorious 12th man – the baying, boisterous Britannia faithful.
The Stoke crowd – officially credited with being the noisiest in the PL – were as intimidating as a half Baked Alaska. Yes, it was cold and the snow lay all around, but only 15,300 Stokies turned out to boost the attendance to a rip snorting 19,814 – this scribe and lady wife included.
It was a massive boost, albeit, Howard ‘The Red’ Webb, stepped up as the 12th man, living down to expectations with a woeful refereeing performance. As Stoke clocked up the foul count you just knew Webb would book a Blue first. Kolarov was duly yellow-carded in the 34th minute.
Webb isn’t a patch on the PL’s best referee Mike Dean. Come to think of it, he’s not even up there with Pearl & Dean!
The match itself was a dogged affair with City always in the ascendancy. Matija Nastasic was missing with injury so Joleon Lescott started, along with Kolarov’s physicality preferred over Gael Clichy’s speed.
Pantilimon had a rare appearance in goal and looked suitably assured apart from one panicky clearance into touch.
Dzeko started up top with Tevez while Mancini had the luxury of a not yet match fit Sergio Aguero on the bench. Dictating the pace from the outset, City pinned Stoke back for long periods.
Thomas Sorenson’s post prevented David Silva breaking the deadlock in the 19th minute with a cultured curling shot from 15 yards. It was all Manchester attacks with Dzeko and Tevez linking well but just lacking that cutting edge.
The loss of Vincent Kompany to a calf injury in the 32nd threatened to change the balance of the game, especially as it took seven minutes to get him replaced. Visible consternation among players and fans came to an end when Gael Clichy joined the fray after Field Marshall Mancini and General Platt finalised tactical changes.
A half time stalemate was accompanied by a growing sense that this would be City’s day.
Ex-Blue Glenn Whelan should have seen red for a vicious two footed plunge onto Garcia’s ankle in the 46th minute. Webb, perfectly positioned didn’t even give a free kick. Blind, inept or just plain dodgy? Who knows, but it was a shocking non-decision.
City continued carving out chances but failing to execute. Barry powered a free header over Sorenson’s bar, Kolarov fired wide after great work by Dzeko and Barry was thwarted by the Danish keeper who smothered the ball as the underrated City man bore down on goal.
Aguero was dragged back by Walters as he was about to shoot on the edge of the box, but once again Webb The Visually Impaired saw nothing untoward.
Zabaleta finally won the game after winning the ball deep in City territory. He passed to Tevez who threaded the ball to Silva. The Spanish magician laid it off to Aguero who fired across the Stoke penalty box, Dzeko helped it onto to Zaba and he finished as if a world class striker.
With Webb playing nearly six minutes of added time – Baconface had presumably messaged him through his earpiece – City maintained their composure and saw out the tie.
It was City’s fifth win and clean sheet of 2013 – all achieved without Yaya Toure, the traditional heart beat of the side.
The Britannia bogey is now laid to rest as was the Arsenal hoodoo just a fortnight ago. Mancini’s men are growing in confidence, stature and purpose and I for one believe that the PL and FA Cup double is on…and that’s not viewed through Sky Blue spectacles.
Once again, I give you FORZA MANCINI.