Manchester City v Barcelona: Lionel Messi always talks to me about City, says Pablo Zabaleta ahead of Champions League meeting
Argentinian has yet to persuade his good friend to join him in Manchester but the little maestro will be there soon enough
It is a beguiling image. "Maybe I could take him out to Didsbury and we could have some fish and chips," says Manchester City's Pablo Zabaleta of his compatriot and friend Lionel Messi. "I think he would like that."
City would need to put rather more than that on the table if they are ever to lure the sublime Argentinian away from Barcelona, but they have a chance to demonstrate to Barça's stars and the rest of the football world how far they have come in two Champions' League games over the next four weeks, starting at the Etihad Stadium on Tuesday night.
The strides have been those of giants since Zabaleta himself arrived in the rainy city along with the money men from Abu Dhabi in August 2008. The club, and the Premier League, have progressed so far in those five and a half years that he now claims: "You always expect the best players to come to the Premier League at some point in their career. It is the best League in the world and having the best player in the world would make it even better. I think every single player in the world would want to come here at some point."
As a sales pitch it is still not entirely convincing, but the City defender is genuine in selling the merits of his new life to anyone who will listen. Messi, he says, often asked him about life in England: "He wasn't the only person in Barcelona who was interested in City, but Leo wanted to know what it was like to be here. I speak to him a lot about football and City is always part of the conversation."
They have been talking to each other since Messi, who is two years younger, joined up with Argentina's Under-20 side captained by Zabaleta that would go on to win the World Youth Championship. "I just tried to bring him into the team and meet the players as nobody knew him," says Zabaleta. "We were all playing in Argentina and he went to Barcelona when he was 11 so we didn't know him at all.
"When the manager came to us and said he would bring an Argentinian player who is playing in the academy in Barcelona we didn't expect him to be that good. The first time we saw him train he was amazing. He was the main player for us. He won the golden boot."
The friendship developed after Zabaleta moved from San Lorenzo in his native Buenos Aires to Catalonia, albeit playing for Espanyol, the little horses to Barcelona's thoroughbreds.
"We spent three years as friends, going out," he says. "We were younger, single... they were good times. I think Leo never changed and is still the same boy he was when he was 17 before his success with Barcelona. That is something you really appreciate."
The comparison is not exact but he accepts that in joining Mark Hughes's middle-of-the-table side, he was again signing up for the less fashionable as well as less successful of a big city's two major clubs.
Eventually, however, he would win the FA Cup, then the League title itself – scoring the first goal in the famous 3-2 victory over Queens Park Rangers which snatched the title from United's grasp.
Last season, sent off in a losing cause in the FA Cup final, he had to console himself with being named as City's Player of the Year and the club's only representative in the PFA Team of the Season. But long before that his reputation had been established as a loyal and popular figure, a foreigner of obvious talent fully buying into the notion of hard work and commitment.
Overshadowed on his first day by the signing of the Brazilian Robinho for five times as much money, he has proved considerably more durable, and believes that his new club have moved out of United's shadow too. "It is a massive, massive change and obviously I feel very proud to be part of it and can say I am one of the survivors of that time.
"After six years I can say I am a Mancunian," he adds. "Now Manchester City have a bigger reputation, not just in England but around the world with the big players. Obviously now the targets are different. We try to win as many trophies as we can every season."
The one thing his team have not yet achieved, of course, is any sort of success in the Champions' League. Unfortunate two years ago, they then finished bottom of the group last season and even in this campaign have demonstrated extremes of form worthy of the old City: notably being outplayed at home by the holders Bayern, then winning 3-2 in Munich after trailing 2-0 in 12 minutes.
Had anyone on the coaching staff realised that another goal while they were on top near the end of that game would have won them the group, Manuel Pellegrini's side could have been facing rather easier opposition on Tuesday.
As it is they must confront some combination of Messi, Neymar (if fit), Cesc Fabregas, Xavi, Iniesta and the rest. How to cope? "The quality of the Barcelona players, especially up front, is fantastic," Zabaleta admits. "All of them are really quick, they are very good finishers and obviously you can't make mistakes against those players, you have to be concentrated for 95 minutes and try to stop them in different ways. But I know it is a really difficult job."
Manchester City v Barcelona is on ITV1 on Tuesday, kick-off 7.45pm
David Silva v Dani Alves
Even away from home Alves, Barça's flamboyant Brazilian right-back, will be unable to resist charging down the wing at every opportunity. If City can win the ball back while he does, Silva has the guile and passing ability to take advantage in the space behind him.
Alvaro Negredo v Javier Mascherano
The former West Ham and Liverpool midfielder has settled into the Barça defence with all the advantages of being able to pass the ball out from the back. The one drawback is his lack of height, which City can exploit if the powerful Negredo keeps away from Gerard Pique and pulls off on to Mascherano.
Samir Nasri v Jordi Alba
Nasri is only just back from injury but his team could prosper if he is given an hour or so against one of the possible weaker links in the visitors' line-up. The Frenchman and Silva will switch wings at least once before City take the option of Nasri being replaced by the speedier Jesus Navas, whose pace could exploit tiring defenders.
Yaya Touré v Andres Iniesta
With Fernandinho still injured, City are short of one top-class holding midfielder, which risks leaving Touré overworked against Xavi – who was specially rested for Barça's game on Saturday night – and Iniesta. The Ivorian will need help from Javi Garcia or whoever is picked as his partner and may be less able than usual to forage forward.
Martin Demichelis v Leo Messi
Which looks like a horrible mismatch... Moving Demichelis into midfield was hardly a success and against this quality of opposition he could be a liability wherever he is used. But City cannot risk having Vincent Kompany drawn out of position in the centre by following Messi, and the captain will need all his experience in helping Demichelis through – aided by Pablo Zabaleta, who is likely to find Messi and either Cesc Fabregas or Neymar, who is only just back from injury, drifting to the wing, then coming back inside.
Gaël Clichy v Alexis Sanchez
Unusually Messi is not Barcelona's top scorer so far this season. With the Argentinian forward suffering a series of injuries, Sanchez has picked up the mantle with 14 goals. He will move wide to accommodate Messi against City meaning that Clichy will have to be at his best defensively if he gets the nod over Aleksandar Kolarov at left-back.
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