Mancini hails unsung hero Zabaleta
Roberto Mancini credited unsung hero Pablo Zabaleta with making the decisive contribution to Manchester City's crucial Premier League win over Arsenal yesterday. David Silva bagged the second-half match-winner that ensured City only need a point from Wednesday's encounter with Stoke at the Etihad Stadium to claim top spot at Christmas for the first time since 1929.
Along with record signing Sergio Aguero, Yaya Toure and Mario Balotelli, Silva has hogged the headlines all season as City have maintained their impressive form. Yet Mancini is fully aware there would be no title tilt without the contribution of the hard workers who allow the superstars to play. Zabaleta is certainly one of those.
Capable of operating in midfield, the South American was placed at right-back during the defeat to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. Yesterday, with Gael Clichy missing, Zabaleta switched flanks and succeeded in pinning down Theo Walcott, which Mancini felt was key to City's eventual triumph.
"In a top team there are 11 players," said the Italian. "But if we want to win and improve, we need to have 20 good players that have a good attitude. Pablo is a very clever player. He knew before the game it would be difficult. I told him if he played very well against Theo Walcott we would probably win the game."
The 26-year-old shrugged off the plaudits, insisting it was all part of the service. "We had some problems with Gael Clichy suspended and Aleksandar Kolarov injured," said Zabaleta. "But I have played many games at left-back. It was no problem. I just want to do my best for the team."
It is the type of unselfish attitude Mancini is demanding of his players, who retained their position at the top having now faced all their major rivals, of whom only Arsenal have visited the Etihad Stadium. That record represents an ominous warning for major championship contenders Manchester United and Tottenham given City have won 17 games out of 18 on home soil since they were defeated by Everton almost a year ago.
What cannot have gone unnoticed by Sir Alex Ferguson and Harry Redknapp was the manner City approached their task. Facing one of the Premier League's in-form teams, on the back of that first defeat at Chelsea, which in itself came immediately after crashing out of the UEFA Champions League, and having seen their league leadership snatched away by Manchester United a couple of hours earlier, City still retained their swagger.
They might have needed an impressive late save from Joe Hart to deny Thomas Vermaelen, who also curled an effort wide in the final minute, but City deserved their victory. "This was a difficult time," said Mancini. "Chelsea and Arsenal are two difficult games and sometimes you can lose. But after what happened in the first one, it was important to win the second."
And so on to Stoke. The Potteries outfit were the first team Mancini faced as City manager two years ago. It turned out to be the only time in five meetings he was successful against Tony Pulis' side before the FA Cup final triumph at Wembley in May. Three days later, City won again in the league.
However, with Stoke bouncing back from a rocky patch to record four successive league wins and clamber back into more familiar territory in the top half of the league, Mancini is taking nothing for granted. "We need time to recover because it will be hard against Stoke," he said. "They are a strong team, who defend very well. It will not be an easy game."