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.

Steve Tongue

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Extras
indybest
Travel
Flocking round: Beyoncé, Madame Tussauds' latest waxwork, looking fierce in the park
travelIn a digital age when we have more access than ever to the stars, why are waxworks still pulling in crowds?
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench appeared at the Hay Festival to perform excerpts from Shakespearean plays
tvJudi Dench and Hugh Bonneville join Benedict Cumberbatch in BBC Shakespeare adaptations
Sport
Is this how Mario Balotelli will cruise into Liverpool?
football
News
Ronahi Serhat, a PKK fighter, in the Qandil Mountains in Iraqi Kurdistan
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Poet’s corner: Philip Larkin at the venetian window of his home in 1958
booksOr caring, playful man who lived for others? A new book has the answer
Arts and Entertainment
Exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Metz - 23 May 2012
art
News
Matthew McConaughey and his son Levi at the game between the Boston Red Sox and the Houston Astros at Fenway Park on August 17, 2014 in Boston, Massachusetts.
advertisingOscar-winner’s Lincoln deal is latest in a lucrative ad production line
Life and Style
Pick of the bunch: Sudi Pigott puts together roasted tomatoes with peppers, aubergines and Labneh cheese for a tomato-inspired vegetarian main dish
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'
film
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

Make the most of British tomatoes

The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape