PABLO ZABALETA insists that a wounded Celtic team will provide a very real threat to Manchester City’s Champions League ambitions on Wednesday.
The veteran Argentinean full-back has been round the block often enough not to fall into the trap of believing that Group C is a straight fight between the two super clubs, City and Barcelona.
He knows that Brendan Rodgers and his players will be hurting after their 7-0 drubbing by Barcelona on matchday one.
And he’s heard enough about Celtic Park to caution anyone who thinks that Pep Guardiola’s high-flying side can bank on three more points not to be so presumptive.
“People are saying that Celtic are the weakest team of the group but, believe me, this game is going to be really hard because they’re a very strong side when they play at home,” he says.
“The atmosphere there is always incredible. I’ve never had an opportunity to play at Celtic Park but I’m really looking forward to it.
“I’ve heard from many players who have played there and they say it’s fantastic.
“I’ve seen many of their games in the Champions League on TV and also in the Scottish League and I know it’s true.
“They’ve been playing in this competition for a lot of years so we know what the Champions League means for them as well as what it means for us.
“Some people think that this group is only about City and Barca, but that is not the case.
“Of course Barcelona is one of the greatest teams ever to have played in this competition and they are in the same group as us, but we cannot forget the other two.
“We have a lot of respect for Borussia Monchengladbach and we certainly have to respect Celtic as well.
“It’s going to be very tough. We need to prepare well for all the games and make sure we can play in our best style of play because, of course, then we will have more chance to win.”
During Zabaleta’s eight seasons at City, they’ve twice lost to the Catalan club in the knock-out stages of the Champions League.
And, as a former player at Barca’s city neighbours Espanyol, he’s well versed in what can happen to teams at the Nou Camp.
That’s why he dismisses Celtic’s heavy loss as an irrelevance in terms of next week’s fixture – unless it’s to serve to fire up the Scottish Champions.
“It’s not easy to go to the Camp Nou and play against one of the greatest teams in the world, especially with the quality that Barcelona have at the moment,” he says.
“They are so good and Celtic are not the only team that’s lost 7-0 at their ground.
“It probably wasn’t Celtic’s best performance so far this season but sometimes that happens in football.
“The defeat will have hurt them and it’s going to be a totally different game against us in Glasgow.”
There’s a growing enclave of players with a City connection at Celtic these days.
Zabaleta knows Kolo Toure, Scott Sinclair and Dedryck Boyata well from their time at the Etihad Stadium and is particularly looking forward to check on the development of young midfielder Patrick Roberts, who is on an 18-month loan from City.
“Patrick can really play,” he says. “I know he’s just had an injury but he’s been doing really, really well at Celtic.
“He’s a young player with a great talent and a great future. But he’s in the other team next week so he will try to do his best for them if he plays.”
Zabaleta joined City from Espanyol the day before it was announced that the club had been bought by the Abu Dhabi United Group, led by Sheikh Mansour, which enabled enormous investment in the squad.
It means he’s been part of the project to make City a European superpower from day one.
He won two Premier League titles, an FA Cup and two League Cups under Roberto Mancini and Manuel Pellegrini but the club seems to have moved several steps closer to their ultimate goal of winning the Champions League now Pep Guardiola is running things.
However, despite an almost perfect start, Guardiola has already tried to temper any runaway optimism by saying that more improvement is needed before City can be considered trophy contenders and Zabaleta sings from the same hymn sheet.
“People are talking a lot about this City team at the moment and we’ve been playing really good football since the start of the season,” he says.
“But we need to keep our feet on the ground.
“The manager said that if we want to win trophies we still need to improve as a team and I agree with that.
“I know that we’re winning games, playing really good football, creating a lot of chances and generally playing in Pep’s style, but there’s a very long way to go until the end of the season.
“Every single game is going to be really hard and we need to keep working.
“We know there’s a period coming up where we have a lot of games and we need to keep the momentum going.
“We are all really excited because when you see the team playing in the way the manager wants it to, everyone enjoys it.
“Some of the players came back late from the Euros and you would like to have all the players from the first day of the pre-season.
“So I’m very impressed how all the players already have a good understanding of how Pep wants his team to play.
“He’s always watching videos and providing all the information we can have for how we can improve.
“We know his style of play – it’s completely different to what we have done in the past.
“He always tries to play attacking football, to control the ball in possession, to be quick in the transition from defending to attacking and, of course, we want to create as many chances as we can because with the quality we have in the team we will make the difference.”