Friday 6 December 2019

Zabaleta insists City players remain confident

Andy Hampson

MANCHESTER City right-back Pablo Zabaleta knows the champions are under pressure to perform as Manchester United continue to control the Barclays Premier League title race.

City began 2013 with a routine 3-0 win over Stoke at the Etihad Stadium but they remain seven points off the pace set by their rivals at the top of the table.

City lost ground as they were beaten in the Manchester derby just over three weeks ago and then suffered a shock loss at Sunderland on Boxing Day.

Zabaleta feels they have responded well to those setbacks but they must keep working hard.

The Argentina defender, who opened the scoring against the Potters, said: "The most important thing is always the performance of the team.

"We played a great game, we had a lot of chances, defensively we were very solid and it's another clean sheet.

"It's a good three points to carry on and we know that we are under pressure because we need to win every game.

"We know we are seven points behind United so it's going to be very tough, but keeping positive and keeping working is the key to catching United.

"It was hard to lose against Sunderland but always you need to try to respond well. We did it and I'm very proud for the team."

City dominated from the outset against a Stoke side with limited ambition.

Sergio Aguero hit the post among several good chances before Zabaleta finally struck when he fired in a rebound two minutes before half-time.

Edin Dzeko tapped in a second before the hour and Aguero netted from the penalty spot after David Silva was felled by Steven Nzonzi, although replays suggested contact may have been outside the area.

On the downside for City, the brilliant Aguero limped off with a hamstring injury soon after scoring and is due to be assessed by the club this week.

He has already been ruled out of Saturday's FA Cup third-round tie against Watford and could be doubtful for the following weekend's trip to Arsenal.

City must also now make do without midfield inspiration Yaya Toure, who along with brother Kolo and fringe striker Abdul Razak, is reporting for African Nations Cup duty with Ivory Coast.

Zabaleta's own performance again underlined his value to the champions.

The tireless 27-year-old has been one of the side's outstanding players this season but remains an unsung hero.

He said: "You feel great when people give you credit but I always try to put the team before me.

"Football is not about individual players, it's about the collective. I'm very pleased for the lads.

"We did great yesterday and it's great when you see everyone play well."

Zabaleta's commitment was illustrated on Boxing Day when he left the field with a nasty gash to the head but returned wearing a bandage.

He said: "I've been safe. I think we've played 20 games already and (it was) just studs against Sunderland, but no stitches.

"The Premier League is so hard, it's a very physical league and every challenge and every tackle is really hard.

"When I go, I go 100 per cent and sometimes I get injuries."

The defeat ended Stoke's 10-game unbeaten run and, after managing just four shots compared to City's 17, manager Tony Pulis admitted fatigue might have caught up with his players after a busy Christmas.

Pulis said: "We have played against Tottenham, Liverpool, and Southampton with 10 men for the last 25 minutes.

"It has been tough and then going to City to play one of the best teams in the Premier League - it's they and United who are going to fight it out again - the lads looked tired in the second half.

"But they kept going. They showed great spirit and commitment and I am not criticising them at all."

With the transfer window open, Pulis is now looking at how he might be able to freshen up his squad for the second half of the campaign.

He said: "Last year we got to a Christmas window and we didn't freshen it up, and we fell away towards the end.

"But we will have to wheel and deal to generate some money. If we can do that hopefully we will be able to change it around."

Who is your sportstar of the year?

Vote in the Irish Independent Sport Star Awards and you could win the ultimate sports prize.

Prizes include, tickets to Ireland's against Scotland in the Six Nations, All Ireland football and hurling final tickets and much more.

Simply click here to register your vote

The Left Wing: The problem with the Champions Cup, the Stephen Larkham effect and trouble in Welsh rugby

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport