Pablo Zabaleta Injury Could Halt Manchester City's Premier League Charge

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Pablo Zabaleta Injury Could Halt Manchester City's Premier League Charge
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Manchester City's 3-1 victory over Leicester City in their Capital One Cup quarterfinal match was marred by a hamstring injury to starting right-back Pablo Zabaleta.

And those are not Christmas bells pealing in the blue side of Manchester. Those are alarm bells.

Losing any starting player while playing an overmatched side like Leicester City is disappointing. Losing your team's 2012-2013 Player of the Year is borderline catastrophic.

The club's website served almost instantaneous notice that something was wrong:

Now Manchester City manager Manuel Pellegrini's preseason words about wanting exceptional squad depth serve only to haunt him.

"We need a stronger squad with two players in each position," Pellegrini said in July according to Adam Crafton of the Daily Mail.

Unfortunately, two players at each position are apparently not enough. Manchester City may very well have to face Liverpool (and Premier League goals leader Luis Suarez) on Dec. 26 without their first or second choice right-back available.

Per Tom Rostance of BBC Sport, "Pablo Zabaleta has pinged a hamstring and his immediate reaction is fury, punching the ground in anger. Micah Richards did the same thing against Bayern last week. A curse on right-backs?"

Rostance followed that observation with the new leader in the clubhouse for the understatement of 2013. "Not good news for Manuel Pellegrini," Rostance wrote.

Warren Little/Getty Images
Manchester City may need Richards to get healthy fast.

While it is too soon to speculate on how much time Zabaleta might miss from this injury, it is not premature to look at Manchester City's upcoming slate of matches and see that this hamstring knock comes at a terrible time for the Sky Blues.

Facing Liverpool without Zabaleta would be very difficult. But the larger issue is that Manchester City must play four Premier League matches in 12 days beginning with their trip to Craven Cottage to face Fulham on Dec. 21.

Manchester City's convincing victory over Arsenal last weekend drew the Sky Blues within three points of the Gunners after 16 league matches. The Citizens somehow stayed in the title race despite extensive absences at centre-back from first choices Matija Nastasic and captain Vincent Kompany.

Now Pellegrini must again cobble a first-team back line from the limited number of healthy bodies at his disposal.

If Zabaleta misses the next four Premier League matches, how many points will City win from those four matches?

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And unlike before, Manchester City will no longer have their right-back position locked down.

According to whoscored.com, Zabaleta is not only the best of the City defenders who have started at least 10 matches—he's the only one.

Pellegrini has mixed and matched defenders all season. Aleksandar Kolarov, Gael Clichy, Martin Demichelis and Nastasic have all started eight league matches thus far. Kompany has made seven league starts.

To the extent that Manchester City have survived with all of this uncertainty on the back line, they have done so with Zabaleta consistently eliminating one vulnerability.

Regrettably for Manchester City, their strongest defensive position now projects to be among their weakest at a busy point in their packed schedule.

If Dedyrck Boyata is the answer, Manchester City fans likely do not want to know the question.

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