by Chris Lynham

The most recent round of media speculation about an imminent clear-out of the Manchester City squad suggested, in some quarters, that Pablo Zabaleta could be one of the high-profile casualties.

First things first, it has to be said that the Argentina international has not enjoyed a good campaign by his elite standards. Widely-acknowledged throughout the game as the best right-back in the country over the last four years, his levels have undoubtedly dropped in 2014-15.

The marauding, lung-busting runs up and down the flank have been slightly less frequent; he has been part of a sometimes vulnerable backline, and has been dropped by manager Manuel Pellegrini for some high-profile matches, including the 1-0 Champions League second round, second leg defeat to Barcelona earlier this month and the 1-1 draw at Chelsea in January.

Being sidelined for fixtures in which he previously would have been a shoo-in to start cannot have helped the 30-year-old’s confidence. The same can apply to his defensive colleagues who have seen the back four tinkered with on a regular basis during a season which is almost certain to end silverware-free.

The squad is in desperate need of freshening up: That is almost impossible to dispute. The same handful of players have been the bedrock of the first-team since the good times returned to East Manchester four years ago, and the average age of the champions is a genuine concern.

But the prospect of the man who has become an icon among the Blues faithful departing the Etihad Stadium this summer is a dangerous one.

Yes, he has not hit the heights this term. But how many of his team-mates can stand up and say that they have performed at optimum level over the last eight months?

Yes, he is one of the ‘30s club’ – but he only reached that landmark at the turn of the year – hardly time to put him in the ‘past it’ category.

Most crucially of all, he didn’t earn the nickname ‘Iron Man’ by accident. If City do decide the time has come for Zabaleta to move on, where are they going to find (a) someone as talented, and (b) someone who is willing to shed blood, break bones and run through brick walls for the cause?

Has Bacary Sagna shown enough this season to suggest that he is a ready-made replacement?

If City axe Zabaleta, he would surely prove even harder to replace than another former Blues hardman, Nigel De Jong. Jettisoned to AC Milan when contract talks broke down after the title win in 2012, City were confident of filling the gap. Since then Javi Garcia and Jack Rodwell have been and gone at the combined cost of £31million, while Fernando, last summer’s £12m arrival from Porto, has disappointed in his debut season.

So be careful what you wish for, Blues. The fact that Zabaleta loves the club, and the fact that, unlike some of his illustrious compatriots, he took the trouble to learn fluent English, are not strong enough factors alone to justify him prolonging his stay at City.

But the fact that he is still one of the best right-backs around, with a professional pride which will drive him to do better in 2015-16, means the champions would be taking an almighty gamble if they parted company with him.

And who would back director of football Txiki Bergiristain to find a suitable replacement at the first, second or third time of asking anyway?

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