Aguero's off to a flyer but best is yet to come
Pablo Zabaleta tells Tim Rich that his fellow countryman will only improve at City if given time to settle
Sunday 21 August 2011
Sign or straight through? As they reach the barrier to the training ground in their Bentleys, Range Rovers and Mercedes, a security guard asks Manchester City's footballers if they want to stop to deal with the shirts and autograph books that lie at the end of the drive. Most sign but Carlos Tevez, who leaves Carrington in a strangely modest A-Class Mercedes, is straight through.
The autograph they would all want belongs to Sergio Aguero and, after his debut against Swansea last Monday night, he is in the mood to oblige. Those eager fans who surround him are struggling to recall a better beginning for Manchester City and no one is better placed to offer a perspective than Pablo Zabaleta, Aguero's captain for Argentina and now his team-mate at City. Zabaleta understands the devotion Aguero inspires back home and clearly expects more of the same at City once the striker adapts to the new surroundings.
"He looked so comfortable in his first game," smiled Zabaleta, reaching for the nearest understatement. "We always knew how good he was but we need to look after him and remember that it is difficult when you come from another country. Before he came here, we were talking about the club and the city," said Zabaleta, whose attitude to Manchester is very different from Tevez's comments on Argentinian television that: "there is nothing to do, everything is small and there are only two restaurants".
"I told Sergio he would be happy here because this is a city that gives a lot of respect to football players," added Zabaleta. "He knew a bit about Manchester; he knew the club is growing and they are already a strong team." You would hope Aguero adopts Zabaleta's attitude to Manchester rather than Tevez's. Zabaleta was out on Wednesday night, not at San Carlo, one of Tevez's "two restaurants", but among 250 at Hyde, watching City's reserves beat Oldham in the Manchester Senior Cup.
This is Zabaleta's fourth season at City and he will no doubt have briefed Aguero on his experiences, which began by living in Didsbury, a kind of Mancunian Islington, where he would mingle with supporters queuing for fish and chips. After what happened on Monday, Aguero will struggle to find that sort of anonymity, although at least he can ask his father-in-law for advice on how to cope with the pressure. Married to Diego Maradona's daughter, Aguero is known in Argen-tina as God's Son-in-Law and prompted the Chelsea manager, Andre Villas-Boas, to joke that Aguero'stwo-year-old son, Benjamin, should be put under contract because, for a professional footballer, his genesare impeccable.
"Manchester City made great efforts to bring him here, so naturally there is a lot of pressure on Sergio," said Zabaleta. "But he is a clever guy; he knows what is expected of him. When he was at Atletico Madrid, Maradona would come over to watch games and spend time with his family. I wouldn't be surprised to see him at the Etihad Stadium."
Whether Zabaleta would be surprised to see Tevez in Manchester in a month's time is another question, and one into which he does not want to delve too deeply. "In training [Tevez] is the same he has always been. He is always smiling but where he will be when the transfer window closes is another matter," he said.
"If Carlos stays or goes, it shouldn't really matter. Yes, I want him to stay because he is a great team-mate and a fantastic player. But, if he goes, you have to accept it, carry on and look forward. We can win without him because we have great quality up front with Sergio, Edin Dzeko and Mario Balotelli. It is not bad."
There is plenty that links Tevez and Aguero. They are tough, compact players and each has been anointed by Maradona as his natural successor. They also come from similar backgrounds. Aguero grew up in Quilmes, a tough outpost of Buenos Aires. When he started playing for Independiente, the club found his parents somewhere safer to live.
"It happens all across South America," said Zabaleta. "You see very great players come from very poor areas and when they come to Europe they know they are setting an example to everyone back home. They show people living in the area they come from that if you do everything right you can have a good lifestyle. You appreciate football more because it gives you another life."
Coming to England should have been more difficult after the southern winter Aguero had endured. The Argentinian dream is to win the 2014 World Cup in the Maracana, the citadel of their eternal enemy, Brazil. But first it would be as well to win the Copa America in their own country, a task in which they failed lamentably, eliminated by Uruguay on penalties in the quarter-finals.
"It will be hard for Sergio coming from the Copa America because the Premier League is non-stop and, especially around Christmas and New Year, it is hard," said Zabaleta. "It is a long nine months and this time the season will be more compressed because of the European Championship. We have had two weeks' rest since the tournament. We are here because we have to be here but we are not 100 per cent."
Which probably comes as news to anyone who witnessed his display on Monday. Today it is the turn of the Reebok Stadium.
Bolton v Manchester City on Sky Sports 1 today, kick-off 4pm
Aguero: All you need to know: A question of class and the secret shared with Torres
Where does Aguero stand in the Argentinian tradition?
If Argentina wanted to erect a statue to its footballing spirit, the journalist Borocoto wrote in El Grafico in 1928, it should depict ''a pibe [kid] with a dirty face, a mane of hair rebelling against the comb; with the intelligent, roving, trickster and persuasive eyes and a sparkling gaze that seem to hint at a picaresque laugh that does not quite manage to form on his mouth, full of small teeth that might be worn down by eating yesterday's bread". Aguero ticks most of the boxes. Having grown up in a villa misera in Quilmes to the north of Buenos Aires, he fits the right social background, the urchin kid who learned the game in the streets and still plays with an impudent charm. Only the short hair differs from the template, but Borocoto would probably allow for the changing of fashions in that regard.
How popular is he in Argentina?
Before Argentina's Copa America match against Colombia earlier this season, the stadium announcer hit upon a key truth: "Con el 10," he said, "el mejor jugador del mundo, Lionel Messi. Y con el 11, el jugador del pueblo, Carlos Tevez." Messi is the best player in the world, but Tevez is the player of the people. Fans look at Tevez, and they see spirit and effort, a tough guy with his scar and his pibe hair, who comes from one of the roughest areas of Buenos Aires, clearly giving his all for the shirt. They look at Messi, and they see the middle-class boy from Rosario with his neat hair whose genius is somehow cerebral and unflustered. And so when things go wrong, even when it is Tevez who has missed the vital penalty, it is Messi who takes the blame. Aguero lies somewhere between the two: his emotions not worn on his sleeve quite as Tevez's are, but not as hidden as Messi's. He grew up in poverty, but nothing like the Fuerte Apache area where Tevez comes from. Even his hairstyle falls somewhere in the middle.
Can Aguero and Tevez play together?
On the evidence of the Copa America, Sergio Batista, Argentina's then coach, thought not. He played them for just 46 minutes together, as Aguero came off the bench for the final quarter of the draws against Bolivia and Colombia. Diego Maradona, similarly, kept them apart during the World Cup. The complicating factor, of course, is Messi, who occupies for Argentina the "false nine" role in which Tevez tended to operate for Manchester City. When the three were played as a fluid front line in a 4-3-3, as in the latter part of the4-0 friendly win over Albania in June, they impressed, Aguero and Tevez both scoring. It was only a friendly, it was only Albania, and it was 2-0 at half-time, but still, their inter-movement was good; at the Copa though, whenever Tevez and Aguero were on the pitch together it was in a 4-2-3-1 with Tevez advanced of Messi and Angel Di Maria on the left. That tended to mean Messi and Tevez getting in each other's way; whereas against Albania, Messi had dropped off, creating space for Aguero and Tevez to attack from wide. At City, it's possible to imagine Tevez dropping off, and Aguero and one of Adam Johnson, Mario Balotelli or perhaps even David Silva cutting in. It's hard to see, though, how both could play with Edin Dzeko without play becoming very narrow. Still, Aguero has proved himself a tactically intelligent player, and he thrived with the highly mobile Diego Forlan at Atletico and with Maxi Morales, another in the pibe tradition, with Argentina's Under-20 side.
Why do Aguero and Fernando Torres both have their own names tattooed in Tengwar (one of J R R Tolkien's Elvish languages) on their forearms?
Frankly that remains something of a mystery. Aguero has said merely that "it's a popular one". Asked about the tattoo in Bloemfontein during the Confederations Cup, Torres said that he didn't want to talk about it, but then seemed genuinely interested to learn that Tolkien had been born in the city, and that his mother had insisted on moving him to Birmingham after he had been bitten by a spider at the age of three. Torres even speculated that the incident had led to Tolkien fearing spiders, something reflected in Frodo's battle with Shelob, the giant spider in Lord of the Rings. Given that the midfielder Maniche and the goalkeeper Antonio Lopez have similar tattoos, it's safe to assume the film was popular in the Atletico Madrid dressing-room in 2006-07.
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