Iron Man made for Luton

Posted by Simon Curtis

When I made a comment last week that Pablo Zabaleta had been constructed chiefly out of spare parts from Apache helicopters, I was quickly and clearly corrected. It is in fact the Apache helicopters that are made of spare bits that have fallen off (or been chipped off) Zabaleta. My apologies for the schoolboy error. I should really, at my age, have known slightly better. As if to prove the point once and for all, here was yet another game that showed why this is true, as the Argentine workhorse continues to build a bond with the City faithful to match those enjoyed by Shaun Goater, Uwe Rosler, Ali Benarbia, Shaun Wright-Phillips, Georgi Kinkladze and other A class City stalwarts from years gone by.

- Match report: Stoke 0-1 Manchester City

Stoke away in the cup is a good place to fill your side with storm-troopers in any case, and with Zabaleta, Joleon Lescott, Javi Garcia and Aleksandar Kolarov all present, the feeling was that City were ready for any size fight the locals wished to inflate it to. Giant Costel Pantilimon filled the goal, block-of-flats-sized Edin Dzeko took his place up front. For all the talk of City's pocket rockets, Roberto Mancini is also capable of putting out a formidably physical side too, when needs must, and here was just the occasion to roll out the six-footers. In midfield we were treated to the Gareth Barry-Garcia axis, giving City solidity, nous and the braking speed of a 1967 Morris Minor.

The first effect of the fabled Magic of the Cup appeared to be that it had made the Stoke fans disappear. While the away end was packed to the rafters, gaping patches of red seats were evident in the home support on all three parts of the ground they were supposed to be occupying. Perhaps next time City come to town, they can lend us a side instead. Still, the atmosphere was what you would expect, and City, backed by the noise of nearly 5,000 Mancunians, tore into the home side from the start.

Mancini, obviously aware of what Chelsea had achieved here in recent weeks, had set his side up to press powerfully from the start in the hope of putting some light between the teams before halftime. That this did not happen was down to over-elaboration in front of goal and some last-ditch Stoke tackling. As Stoke came into things, the limit of the locals' hopes was made clear by the giddy atmosphere created by the occasional winning of a corner. As ever, if you allow Stoke set pieces, be they free kicks, corners, even throw-ins, you run the risk of being flattened, and so it was that City came off at halftime looking a little flustered by the bombardment in the last 15 minutes of the half.

With Vincent Kompany's absence provoking a prolonged spell of head-scratching on the touchline before the Three Wise Men chose to add Gael Clichy and go to a back three, Stoke were beginning to look their old selves again. Ryan Shotton sent Carlos Tevez into a tailspin, and Glenn Whelan, an ex-City apprentice perhaps irked that a possible midfield berth with the champions of England had been taken from him and given to plodding Garcia, launched himself into a horrendous double-footed stamp tackle on the Spaniard. Luckily referee Howard Webb was half a meter away when it happened. Unfortunately, for reasons known only to him, he chose to ignore it entirely, perhaps hoping that Whelan might just walk off the pitch without anyone's bidding out of sheer shame at what he had just carried out.

The tie continued to ebb and flow, the ball sizzling along the ground towards Thomas Sorensen and hurtling eight feet above it towards human pencil Pantilimon. Fittingly, the game's defining moment was given to us by Zabaleta. Struggling back to cover a Stoke breakaway, he stuck in a foot to nip the ball away to safety. From there a swift counter took the ball fizzing from David Silva out to Sergio Aguero on the left. As his cross drifted behind Dzeko, who should have made up an entire pitch-length in support but Zabaleta, steaming in at the far post in fifth gear. With a deft flick that his pals Aguero and Tevez would no doubt have been proud to call their own, the ball was dispatched low past Sorensen for a timely winner. The tackle, the lung-busting 85th-minute charge back up the pitch to where he had just come, the unerring finish, the high-volume celebration. It could mean only one thing: City's most popular player bar none had broken Stoke's dogged resistance.

As news filtered through that non-league Luton Town had won at Norwich, heads nodded knowingly. David Pleat's fawn slip-ons. David Pleat's fawn suit. David Pleat's hoppety skippety run across the Maine Road turf in 1983. And Raddy Antic. There can be only one opponent for City in the fifth round of the FA Cup, and I'd like to see what Luton Town make of Pablo Zabaleta.

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