Pablo Zabaleta eyes Middle East career finale

Pablo Zabaleta's contract with West Ham ends next summer and he is pondering a move abroad, with the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar all possibilities. (AFP)
Updated 02 November 2018
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Pablo Zabaleta eyes Middle East career finale

  • Pablo Zabaleta's contract with West Ham ends next summer
  • Zabaleta could emulate his former City boss Pep Guardiola who spent two seasons with Qatar side Al-Ahli at the end of his playing days

LONDON: Pablo Zabaleta’s first Gulf experience came 15 years ago.
It was the FIFA Under-20 World Cup in the UAE, a tournament that saw home hero Ismail Matar named best player as his side reached the quarterfinals, while Saudi Arabia just failed to qualify for the last 16.
Zabaleta, then 18, was in Argentina’s squad alongside Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano, Spain had Andres Iniesta and eventual winners Brazil included Dani Alves.
Zabaleta recalled these moments when old club Manchester City became Abu Dhabi-owned in 2008. Over the past decade, his interest in the region has grown to the extent he is now looking to end his playing career there and take his first steps into coaching.
His two-year contract with West Ham ends next summer and he is pondering a move abroad, with the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar all possibilities.
“My heart tells me I would like to play forever, but I will be 34 in January and I need to listen to my body at that time,” he told Arab News.
“At the end I will know what I want to do and where to go, but I would like one or two more years to carry on playing. At 34 I think it might be the right time to try something different, have a new experience.
“If I carry on playing in Europe, Italy is one of those leagues I haven’t played, but I have always been thinking about the Middle East. I first went to the UAE for the Under-20 World Cup in 2003 and have seen how much the region has changed.
“I’ve been to Saudi Arabia and Qatar with the national team and you see the fantastic progress, football standards improving and passion of fans.
“The League is not as long as in Europe, but there’s still the chance to play for trophies, to play big games competitively like in the Asian Champions League.
“I can’t see myself going to China; the Middle East and America are more attractive.
“I know the Middle East clubs have three or four spots for foreign players and they always try to bring attackers who have more influence on a game. But I’ve been playing in the top leagues and believe I can give experience, versatility and quality.”
At 21, Hammers team-mate and compatriot Manuel Lanzini became the youngest foreign player to play in the UAE Arabian Gulf League with one season at Al-Jazira before a dream Premier League move in 2015.
“I spoke to Manu about his experience and he said it was great,” added Zabaleta. “But the difference was he was only 21, then wanted to go to Europe and test himself further. He said the lifestyle was fantastic, you train late in the evenings because of the conditions. After England, this is what I’m looking for.
“You see Ahmed Musa was playing for Leicester, did well in the World Cup and had attractive offers from Europe, but went to Saudi Arabia with Al-Nassr. It was a surprise, but this is what can happen now. I have read Saudi Arabia are thinking about 2030, changing many things to make it better. Football and sport is important to this.”
Zabaleta could emulate his former City boss Pep Guardiola who spent two seasons with Qatar side Al-Ahli at the end of his playing days before going into a successful coaching career.
After nine years at the Etihad, the full-back would love to take charge one day as he added: “Why not? I spent nine years at Man City, it was like a home and my last meeting with (chairman) Khaldoon Al-Mubarak, he said the door will be open for me to come back to Man City in some role, so we will see. It would be special.
“I know Pep did this and went to Qatar after playing for Barcelona and then moved into coaching. It would be nice to do that.
“I have done my B license, next is the A license. In football you never know, but I’d like to keep involved, whether as a manager or off the field. I want to prepare myself by having those badges.
“I’m always watching football, talking about it. Whether it’s Spain, Italy, China or the Middle East. My phone is full of football apps.”
For now, though, Zabaleta is focused on keeping the Hammers in the top flight. Three points clear of the bottom three, they host Burnley tomorrow.
“I don’t want relegation,” he added. “We have to fight. After 11 years in England, I would like to leave the Premier League in a good way if I do go.”


Giorgio Chiellini confident Juventus can buck recent trend of Supercoppa defeats

Though upbeat, Juventus captain Giorgio Chiellini admitted that it will be a “difficult match.” (AN Photo by Huda Bashatah)
Updated 16 January 2019
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Giorgio Chiellini confident Juventus can buck recent trend of Supercoppa defeats

  • Skipper also happy the match is being played in Jeddah, and sees it as a ‘step forward’ for Saudi Arabia
  • AC Milan coach Gennaro Gattuso sidesteps questions about Gonzalo Higuain’s rumored move to English Premier League

JEDDAH: Juventus have been experiencing a worrying trend in cup finals of late. Despite securing the Serie A and Coppa Italia double for three seasons running, they have lost back-to-back Supercoppas and seven out of nine European cup finals. It’s a trend, however, that captain Giorgio Chiellini believes can be halted on January 16 when his side takes on AC Milan in the Supercoppa Italiana final at King Abdullah Sports City Stadium in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
“We want to change that trend that has seen us lose the last two Supercoppa finals, and this is the ideal opportunity,” said the defender. “We have changed a great deal in two years, but we’ve got to prove ourselves with actions rather than words because we let a few too many of these trophies slip through our fingers and it’s a shame.
“It’s going to be a difficult match but the objective is to start 2019 lifting a trophy above our heads.”
Chiellini also defended the choice of Jeddah as the venue for the game against a backdrop of criticism by some. He said that it was “right” to give the Saudi port city the chance to host the showpiece match.
“I am happy this game is being played here and can be seen as a further reason for progress in this country, and I see it as a step forward and not a problem,” he said. “We (soccer players) cannot change the world but initiatives such as this can provide a new start.
“We have been given a warm welcome and I hope tomorrow can be remembered by the Saudi people as a wonderful celebration. We have to provide a spectacle of Italian football and know that all fans will be happy with our performances.”
As the rival teams faced the media on the eve of the match, both were confident about their chances of lifting the first silverware of the Italian soccer season. This year marks the 31st Supercoppa, a match contested by the previous season’s Serie A domestic league champions and the winners of the Coppa Italia. When a single team wins both honors, as was the case last season, they take on the Coppa Italia runners-up.
This year’s game, the tickets for which reportedly sold out in two days, might also mark a farewell to Italian football for striker Gonzalo Higuain, who is currently on loan to AC Milan from Juventus but is widely rumored to be on the verge of a move to Chelsea in the English Premier League. If the Argentine international is indeed on his way out, he will be hoping to end his stay with the Rossoneri with some silverware while also, perhaps, sticking it to his parent club.

Milan coach Gennaro Gattuso (center) said Higuain has never told him he wants to leave the club. (AN Photo by Huda Bashatah)

Asked about the status of any transfer talks, AC Milan head coach Gennaro Gattuso was careful to avoid feeding the rumor mill.
“At this moment, I have to repeat the same words: there are many rumors but Higuain is training well and working with everyone just fine and is at our disposal,” he said. “I base my decisions on how players train during the week and how they work with the staff and their teammates. We’ll see tomorrow whether he plays or not.
“I want to reiterate that Higuain has never told me he wants to leave. I am waiting for that. He has to decide what to do, how to resolve this issue, but right now he is training with great professionalism. We’ll see.”
Gattuso then nipped this line of questioning in the bud by adding: “I want to be honest; I don’t even want to talk about Higuain as we’re here for the Supercoppa.”
Juventus head coach Massimiliano Allegri, meanwhile, is well aware that while they are undefeated in Serie A this season after 19 games, with 17 wins and two draws, league form counts for little in a cup final, as evidenced by their recent results in such games. As such, he is keen to avoid any complacency among his players.
“One of the great strengths of this team is our respect for the opposition, otherwise you don’t win as many games as we have,” he said. “There are 22 points separating our teams in Serie A but those don’t matter here. If we do not have great humility and respect for Milan tomorrow, then it’s unlikely we will win the game.”
The prematch press conference inevitably included questions about Cristiano Ronaldo. Since his 112 million euro ($128 million) move to Juventus from Real Madrid last summer, the Portuguese star has netted 15 goals in 25 appearances. On Wednesday, the five-time winner of the Ballon d'Or — an award presented each year by France Football magazine to the player judged to be the best in the world — will aim to lift his maiden trophy with his new club, after having bagged 15 titles during his nine years with the Spanish giants.
While Ronaldo did not appear at the press conference, Allegri was asked whether the striker had arrived in Italy with a stronger and hungrier desire to win.
“He would have to win something first to prove that,” the coach said. “Cristiano is accustomed to winning; he has won four of the past five Champions Leagues and many more titles. Ronaldo is the best player in the world and clearly an added bonus for us. Our situation has certainly improved with his presence.”
Wednesday night’s match is sure to be hotly contested, as Juventus and AC Milan currently share the record for Supercoppa titles, with seven each. While Juventus are making their seventh successive Supercoppa appearance, it is perhaps AC Milan who can lay claim to bragging rights, given that the last time these two teams met in the Supercoppa, in 2016, the Rossoneri ended up on top following a penalty shoot-out after the game ended in a 1-1 draw after extra time. With all the talking officially done, all that remains is a historic night of top quality soccer at King Abdullah Sports City Stadium.