The Reds completed a Premier League double over City last season and have won three out of the last four meetings.
A veteran of more than a dozen clashes against United, Zaba recently retired from playing and is now focusing on his coaching badges.
He made 333 appearances for City between 2008 and 2017 and while he says the current side will know what winning a Manchester derby means, he believes passion and fight are always vital ingredients in a fixture that has been unpredictable in recent seasons.
“I think most of the players are well aware and know how important the Manchester derby is, especially to the fans,” said Zabaleta.
“When you play against United, you not only have to have great quality, you have to show great passion and desire because you need to win this sort of game to challenge for the title.
“Playing against your biggest rival, some of the big players need to step up even more and show their quality, but as a team, you also need to be together, fight and show passion because this is what the fans always expect in these kind of games.”
He also feels English teams competing in the Champions League aren’t helped by TV scheduling or the fixture planners, adding: “United played a day earlier than City this week, so I don’t know why it is not being played on a Sunday.
“But that’s how it has always been with the Premier League not really looking after the teams who are in the Champions League.
“It means City have one day less time to rest, but as we saw against Marseille, Pep was able to rest some players ahead of this game, which is important.”
Zaba says that playing the Manchester derby behind closed doors is a double-edged sword for City.
On one hand, the Reds won’t have 70,000-plus fans roaring them on, but at the same time, he believes the home fans can also make their dissatisfaction known if the visiting team are on top.
“Is it an advantage for City? I don’t think so," he said. "But I’ve never experienced playing in an empty stadium so it must be really hard in all honesty because the fans bring so much to games like this, especially a Manchester derby.
“Of course, when you play at home, you have the advantage of having your own fans behind you, but for visiting teams to Old Trafford, you want to play with personality and try and upset the Manchester United fans because that can also work in your favour!
“It won’t be the same without the fans, that’s for sure.”
United lost against Red Bull Leipzig on Tuesday to end interest in this season’s Champions League.
And while Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will no doubt be hoping his team take their frustrations out on City, Zaba feels the Reds’ mood may still be raw after their surprise exit from the competition.
“Sometimes when you go out of the Champions League you can feel bad for a few days and it can create a bad atmosphere in the dressing room,” he said.
“I don’t know how the United players will react, but mentally, it will be pretty tough and I know that because the first few seasons that City were in the Champions League, we went out at the group stage.
“We had tough groups in those years and United did this time, but I think City can take advantage of this if the United players are feeling low about being out of the Champions League.”
One player he feels can be a threat to City’s chances is Edinson Cavani.
Zaba had numerous tussles with the Uruguayan striker during South American World Cup qualifiers and says the Reds’ striker – who faces a race to be fit for the derby – can be a “nightmare” to play against.
“He is playing good for United – I’m not sure what his fitness levels are but he started on the bench for a few fames and now he’s getting a few goals,” he said.
“Whenever I faced Uruguay he was a real handful because he always wanted to do well for his country and he was deadly inside the box.
“Playing Uruguay was a nightmare because of Cavani and Luis Suarez – they were strong, always looking for fouls and went really hard in challenges - they would do anything to win.
“He’s playing with a lot of confidence and the City players need to be wary of him because he is in a good moment and is a very dangerous player.”
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