Pablo Zabaleta believes Manchester City’s defensive steel and unity can be the key to a second Premier League title in three seasons.
A thumping 3-0 derby win at reigning champions Manchester United on Tuesday – their third straight win at Old Trafford – highlighted the quality of the Etihad outfit as they closed the gap on leaders Chelsea to three points with two games in hand.
While City’s attack has been lauded in this campaign, they have now kept five successive clean sheets in the league to leave them confident about testing forthcoming clashes with Arsenal, Southampton and Liverpool.
And Zabaleta said: “As a team we look really solid, and that is important at this stage of the season.
“Defensively we are keeping clean sheets, and that is something that has made the team better. We know we have enough quality up front to win games, and that we can score at any moment in games.
“It’s also important that our strikers are coming back to their best form, and that they keep scoring goals. Edin [Dzeko] was fantastic and scored two goals, the midfield has been brilliant at supporting the defenders and attacking, and the back four has been fantastic again.
“We know if we play as a team we can beat anyone, and that win at Old Trafford was an important one. It’s been important that we got our momentum back.
“We are coming back to our best form, and we know we need to keep playing like that until the end of the season.
“At the beginning, people were talking about three teams, United, Chelsea and City. But we also have Arsenal and Liverpool, so it’s very tight at the top.
“We need to go to Anfield, and to Everton, and our next game is at Arsenal, so we have some difficult games. But we just need to keep belief and know that if we play as a team we can win all of those games. We want to win the league and it depends entirely on us.”
Having shown who was “boss” in Manchester, according to two-goal matchwinner Dzeko, after the derby triumph City next visit Arsenal on Saturday.
And Zabaleta was relieved not to be ruled out of the clash at Emirates Stadium after coming on the end of a late challenge from Danny Welbeck and an elbow in the face from Marouane Fellaini.
“The first one was a very dangerous tackle by Welbeck, I was very lucky to be honest because I could have broken my leg,” said the rightback.
“The second one was an elbow by Fellaini. It was also a red card, but at the end of the day we should respect the referee’s decision.”
With David Moyes facing the wrath of Manchester United fans after a derby debacle left them at their lowest ebb, former captain Gary Neville says not even spending £150 million (Dh909m) in the summer could solve their problems.
The 3-0 defeat to Manchester City on Tuesday was a crushing blow for manager Moyes as the suffering Scot battles to keep his job.
A sixth defeat of the season at Old Trafford confirmed how the champs of the previous Premier League campaign have become chumps, with supporters venting their fury at both the current boss, and also Sir Alex Ferguson, the man who made Moyes the ‘Chosen One’ after he retired last summer.
With a Champions League quarter- final against Bayern Munich their last hope of salvaging something from a forgettable, problemfilled season, Moyes wants time to change things around.
“A lot of other clubs have had to change and they have had to do rebuilding jobs and look at the time ithas taken them to do that and get to a level of competing,” he said as he accepted responsibility for the loss.
It is understood the catastrophic defeat has brought no immediate review of Moyes’ position and his job, for now, remains secure. But Neville has been stunned by the decline at the club where he won eight titles in 19 years as he said:
“The worrying thing is that people seem to think the answer is just to go and chuck another £150m (Dh909m) at it. But I don’t know.
“It is almost as if you need to know what is wrong with the soup before you throw more ingredients in to make it better.
“The defence doesn’t push up the pitch, they are not front foot defensively. Midfield obviously again you need pressure and drive from midfield and you haven’t got that, they are not risk takers, so the passing is slow at times.
“Up front, they have got good players but it is where you fit them in, how you position them together. David Moyes has some work to do in working that out in these next few months.”
The way United’s midfield was over-run by City emphasised a crucial area Moyes needs to address and improve, providing United’s board don’t sack him.
Paul Scholes, who won his 11th title with the club in last season’s triumph before retiring, hopes the board will back Moyes, but questioned the impact of £27m (Dh163.6m) signing of Marouane Fellaini.
“He’s not been great, has he?” asked Scholes. ‘For a central midfielder at Manchester United for £27m (Dh163.6m), I’m expecting a few goals at least.
“He did have problems with his wrist and I know he missed a lot of games but, for the money they paid for him, I’d be expecting a lot more.”
Amid the gloomy outlook, Wayne Rooney says fans have to stay “strong” to help them through this period of change. But he added: “We can’t lose six homes games in a season and we have to put that right, and make this a place which teams fear again.
“It’s probably been the story of our season so far that we’ve got a couple of good results and then one which sets us back a bit. We know we have to respond.
“We’ve got two big games coming up against Bayern Munich, but first we have to focus on the Aston Villa game and try to end the season on a positive note.”
Sport360°’s Alam Khan on five ways for David Moyes to get United back on top
– Be bold and make wholesale changes in the summer by getting rid of players who are not good enough, and those who don’t want to be there. Nani, Ashley Young, Javier Hernandez, Alex Buttner and Tom Cleverley will do for starters. If Wayne Rooney is to be captain, build the team around him, Juan Mata, and sell Robin van Persie to avoid a potential clash of egos.
– Sign the best players for positions where they are weakest rather than the biggest names. That should include two new full-backs – Luke Shaw (right) springs to mind – and a centreback like Jan Vertonghen or Mats Hummels, to bring assurance in defence. There is also need for more midfield steel.
– Know your best system and stick with it. The derby saw Moyes put out his 46th different starting line-up this season. United are not playing to their own strengths or using tactics to suit their current set of players, but trying to deal with those of their opponents.
– Stop praising opponents for being better and making comments like we “are aspiring to be like City” or “Liverpool are favourites”. It smacks of fear, a resignation that the job is proving difficult, and having no faith and a lack of confidence in his own side.
-Forget loyalty or tradition and bring in better, more experienced coaches to work on the technical side. The loss of Rene Muelensteen has been keenly felt and given he has proved to be a better coach than manager, maybe a return to Old Trafford would help both parties.
Barcelona’s comfortable victory over Celta Vigo was overshadowed by a serious injury to Victor Valdes which could signal the end of the goalkeeper’s Nou Camp career.
Valdes had already announced his irrevocable decision to leave Barca when his contract expires at the end of the season, but his campaign is already over after injuring ligaments in his right knee in an innocuous incident as he made a routine save from Fabian Orellana’s free-kick.
He appeared to land badly after palming the ball into the air and then diving on it at the second attempt, and was clearly in agony as he was stretchered off the field.
Valdes was later seen leaving hospital on crutches and Barca confirmed last night he would need an operation on his anterior cruciate and will be out for six months.
It now leaves 38-year-old backup Jose Manuel Pinto as Barcelona’s first-choice goalkeeper at a crucial stage of the season.
Valdes’ World Cup is also over at a time when he had been considered for the starting line-up due to Iker Casillas’ ongoing lack of playing time at Real Madrid.
The game itself was chiefly notable for Neymar ending his sixmatch run in front of goal with a brace, while Lionel Messi added his eighth in four games to complete the scoring.
The outcome never looked in doubt, with Barca on top from the opening whistle and having the ball in the net after three minutes, only to see Messi’s strike from an Andres Iniesta pass ruled out for offside.
Less than two minutes later, however, the deadlock was broken as Celta’s risky offside trap this time failed, allowing Messi to release Alexis Sanchez who in turn squared a low pass into the middle, giving Neymar a simple tap-in from close range for his first club goal in six weeks.
More goals were quickly threatened as Neymar hit the side-netting and Messi forced a good one-handed save from visiting keeper Yoel, before Valdes’ injury put a dampener on proceedings.
The second arrived after half an hour, with Iniesta brilliantly splitting open the Celta defence with a slide-rule pass to Messi, who rounded Yoel before slotting home with his right foot as the angle narrowed.
Playing against his former club, substitute Pinto retained Barca’s advantage early in the second half by making an excellent double save to deny Augusto Fernandez and then Santi Mina.
Although the pace had dropped from the game, the outcome was soon fully confirmed as Neymar added his second, receiving a long crossfield pass from Sanchez and cutting inside from the left wing and firing a low shot which deflected off Andreu Fontas to give Yoel no chance.
Sanchez should have made it four after being played through by a wonderful pass from substitute Pedro, but the Chilean took too long over his shot and Jonny Castro was able to make a block.
Pinto gave Barca a scare by kicking a clearance straight at Mario Bermejo and then colliding with the goalpost as the ball rebounded narrowly wide.
Jordi Alba came close with a low long-range strike and Pinto made solid stops from Castro and Mario Bermejo to preserve his team’s clean sheet, and the game gradually meandered towards an uneventful close with all Barca thoughts turning towards Valdes.