Unsung hero Zabaleta won't ring closing bell on City's chase to retain their crown
The last time Pablo Zabaleta walked off the pitch at the Emirates Stadium, Manchester City had lost to an 87th-minute goal by Mikel Arteta, Mario Balotelli had been sent off and they had dropped eight points behind Manchester United in the race for the Premier League title with just six games to go. A season of rich promise was imploding.
That was in April and everyone thought it was all over. "But we won the Premier League title because we believed in ourselves," the Argentine states. "Now it's the same." Now City travel to Arsenal seven points behind United – it could be 10 by the time they kick-off if their title rivals win at home to Liverpool this afternoon – and already Zabaleta senses that despite it being only the second week of January any margin for error has already disappeared.
"We are under pressure and we cannot drop any points at the moment," he says. "If United beat Liverpool then it's going to be difficult for us. But we need to control the situation and keep calm. We can't drop points and we must wait for United to drop some points."
It does feel like City are already treading a tightrope. But drama has never been far from the club since, back in August 2008, Zabaleta joined from Espanyol only for the Abu Dhabi United Group and Sheikh Mansour to take over the next day. It is a remarkable tribute to the 28-year-old that he has survived and thrived to such an extent that this has probably been his best season for the club.
"When I signed it was too far to think that in four years we could win the title," the defender admits. "But you always have the dream of winning something."
Now it is about building on that dream. The test of City's progress is not just winning the title – but retaining it. However, Zabaleta acknowledges that United's challenge is formidable – obviously identifying their attacking threat as the difference so far.
"They are very strong at the moment," he says. "They have Van Persie on fire and Chicarito [Javier Hernandez] coming on late in the game and scoring goals. But we need to stay positive because the race still has a long way to go. You never know in the Premier League, every game is so difficult. We expect United will drop some points but obviously we need to keep winning to take advantage."
United's attack may be strong, but Zabaleta argues that their defence is not so daunting. No team in the top-10 have conceded as many goals as the leaders.
"As a team they have not always played well," he says. "Defensively they have some problems, so I think they are making the difference up front."
Finally City's own strikers are finding their form – although the absence of the injured Sergio Aguero, who should return next Saturday against Fulham and the loss of Yaya Toure to the Africa Cup of Nations ("last season without him was probably the worst part of our season," Zabaleta says) hurt.
"He scored probably the most important goal in the last 50 years for this club so every fan has the same dream in his heart," Zabaleta says of Aguero of that goal deep into injury-time at home to QPR that won the title on the season's final day
The team gathered "strength" from the way in which they overhauled United's lead and will draw on that now. But there are concerns, with Aguero having recently split from his wife, that he is unsettled just as compatriot Carlos Tevez was last season.
Zabaleta is naturally close to his countrymen, Aguero in particular, and maintains he is "still happy" at City. "His family have been here for Christmas and New Year and he spent a really good time with them," he says.
"Private life off the pitch is always important. If you have problems off the pitch it's not easy, we are all human and everybody can have problems."
He hopes Aguero will stay and draws on another memory – of the pair returning to Argentina at the end of last season for two important World Cup qualifiers. "Everyone had been talking for a week about that goal," he says, laughing when reminded it is often overlooked that he also scored that day against QPR. Argentina turned sky blue for the day because "they saw three Argentina players playing together". It is an image he wants to see again. "Everything that happened was incredible", he says.
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