While Man City say goodbye to Zabaleta, fellow cornerstones Aguero and Kompany show worth

Aguero has been one of the cornerstones of City’s greatest team. Zabaleta is another, Vincent Kompany a third.

Manchester City's Pablo Zabaleta walks with Vincent Kompany during lap of honour after defeating West Bromwich Albion held at the Etihad Stadium on May 16, 2017. Peter Powell / EPA
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It was the best part of two hours after the final whistle. Pablo Zabaleta’s emotional farewell was still not over.

There were more goodbyes to say, valedictory interviews to give, shirts to sign, photos to pose for, gifts to accept.

Typically of a great trier and a man who gave his time to others, Zabaleta was the last to leave the Etihad Stadium. Fittingly, too, he seems to leave Manchester City in the Uefa Champions League.

They need a point at Watford on Sunday to be mathematically certain of a top-four finish, but they are all but there.

Asked to nominate his favourite moment of Zabaleta’s nine years in Manchester, chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak had plumped for the full-back’s 2014 goal against Roma, taking City into the knockout stages of Europe’s elite club competition for only the second time.

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Read more

■ Pablo Zabaleta: Defined by his own defiance and indomitable spirit

■ In pictures: Man City fans and players pay tribute to Zabaleta after final home match

■ Team of the week: Kane winner gives White Hart Lane fitting finale

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A man who made City history will soon be consigned to it. Yet Tuesday’s 3-1 win over West Bromwich Albion was about the future as well as the past, and about the common denominators.

It was about two Argentines, the departing Zabaleta and Sergio Aguero, whose exit was forecast when he was dropped for Gabriel Jesus in February.

As the South American forwards started together for only the second time, the second highest scorer in City’s history achieved a rare hat-trick for him: he was involved in three goals, even if he scored none.

“I like strikers to be involved in the process,” Pep Guardiola said. The City manager can be all about the process.

Aguero’s role in the build up, dropping off, flicking passes, being the meat in the sandwich of the one-two that led to Yaya Toure scoring City’s third showed he is more than a mere predator.

He had an assist for the Ivorian’s goal, an assist to the assist when Gabriel Jesus opened the scoring.

A player who Manuel Pellegrini said ranked behind only Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo is evolving. Guardiola said he is improving.

“I met players at 28 or 29 and they learned,” he said. “They made things that before they didn’t because they were open-minded, and we helped them create new things, ‘Wow, that is good’.

“Maybe the players don’t believe me, but what I like the most and try the most is to help them.”

Aguero has been one of the cornerstones of City’s greatest team. Zabaleta is another, Vincent Kompany a third.

Partly because of injury problems, the captain made a solitary start between November 19 and April. He has now begun the last seven matches, bringing a battle-hardened ability to win headers and a brand of leadership that can make him feel a throwback.

“It’s amazing how he played,” Guardiola marvelled at the Belgian. “When I see the past seven games, I think ‘wow, with Vincent what could have happened’?”

City have conceded only five goals in those seven games, the last after Kompany had gone off against Albion so Zabaleta could assume the captaincy.

Rewind a few months and it seemed that, with Toure out of contract and Joe Hart loaned out and likely to be sold, David Silva would be the lone survivor of the core of the 2012 title-winning team.

Not now.

Toure’s future remains up in the air but the old guard of Kompany and Aguero are back in favour.

Zabaleta’s days are ending, but City’s other greats may not be pensioned off just yet.

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