Zabaleta is eager to end hoodoo of Marsh age
Manchester City will try to win at Arsenal for first time since 1975 today
It may be one of the worst head-to-head records any English champions have endured against serious rivals, but in one way Manchester City can take encouragement from their dreadful sequence of results when visiting Arsenal; and not merely because things can only get better.
Not since 1975, with a goal by Rodney Marsh, have City won at either Highbury or the Emirates. When they lost 1-0 to Mikel Arteta's late goal in March, after Mario Balotelli had been sent off following one of his red-mist moments, any semblance of a championship challenge appeared to be over. The dressing room was a desperate place to be. "I thought then the title was very difficult for us," said the Argentinian full-back Pablo Zabaleta. "We were eight points behind United at the time."
There were six games left, all of which his team managed to win, climaxing in that astonishing finale against Queens Park Rangers. United, meanwhile, won only three of their six and were beaten, crucially, in the Manchester derby to lose the title on goal difference.
This season the margin between the two clubs is already seven points, and if United beat Liverpool at lunchtime, then by the time the champions kick off in north London it will be a daunting 10. "Seven points is a lot already, if it went to nine or 10 it would make if very difficult, of course," Zabaleta acknowledged. And yet the memory of last season will sustain a club never known for making life easy for themselves, or their followers.
"We won the Premier League because we believed in ourselves. Now it's the same. When you win an important trophy it makes all the players stronger. We need to believe we have great quality in the team to retain the title. We need to control the situation and keep calm. We can't drop points.
"We must wait for United to drop some points. They are very strong at the moment. They have [Robin] Van Persie on fire and Chicharito 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."
Zabaleta was one of the earlier imports to the great Manchester City project, arriving the day before the Abu Dhabi takeover in 2008. He has been one of the more consistent arrivals too, capable of playing in either full-back position and all the more impressive since establishing himself on the right after injuries this season to Micah Richards and Maicon.
His presence may well have been influential in attracting Carlos Tevez and Sergio Aguero, both also from his home town of Buenos Aires, and completing the Three Amigos, Argentina having now adopted City as their favoured English club to put alongside the traditional support for Barcelona and Real Madrid. Zabaleta accepts with a smile that his goal in the decisive win over QPR (City's first, to equalise at 1-1) will be long forgotten in both countries while Aguero's is remembered: "He scored probably the most important goal in the last 50 years for this club. After that game we went to Argentina to play two World Cup qualification games and people had been talking for a week about that goal. So many people were Manchester City fans for that game because they see three Argentinian players in the squad, and everything that happened was incredible."
Aguero has recently separated from his wife of four years – Diego Maradona's daughter – but Zabaleta believes he will stay in England: "Sergio's always telling me he's enjoying the life in Manchester and at this club. He signed for City to win important trophies and I think he's going in the right direction.
"If you have problems off the pitch it's not easy, we are all human and everybody can have problems. It can be sad, but in the end we know we have to give the best for the team. We know how important Sergio is for this team and club. He's a young player on a long-term contract and always when you have good players in the squad you want to keep them for a long time."
Aguero is not due back from injury until next week, which should allow Tevez to start as City attempt to make another, smaller, piece of history today.
Star gazing: Wenger thinks Fab may return
Arsène Wenger has said his former captain Cesc Fabregas could return to Arsenal in the future because he still "loves" the club.
Fabregas left the Emirates after eight years in August 2011 to sign for Barcelona. Since his departure Wenger has concentrated on building a homegrown core to his side, with Theo Walcott expected to join Jack Wilshere, Kieran Gibbs, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Carl Jenkinson and Aaron Ramsey in agreeing a new contract this month.
After the departures of Fabregas, Gaël Clichy, Samir Nasri and Robin van Persie, that would reverse the recent trend of top players leaving as their contracts expire. And Wenger hopes the Spanish midfielder could one day play alongside Walcott.
"Fabregas is a world-class player and I'm not convinced that he will not come back here one day, you know," he said.
"He is a real Arsenal man. He loves Arsenal and watches every game. But of course Barcelona was his home town, where he grew up, and we have to accept that. Not in the next two or three years certainly, because he's still with Barcelona, but maybe later?"
Arsenal are likely to field at least five British players aged 23 or under against Manchester City this afternoon, and Wenger believes that bodes well for the future.
"What you want is players to grow up together and be successful," he said.
Arsenal v Manchester City is on Sky Sports 1 today, kick-off 4pm
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