Manchester City defender Pablo Zabaleta has urged all his team-mates to step up to compensate for the loss of Yaya Toure.
Toure, the champions’ midfield driving force, might not be seen again in a City shirt for seven weeks as he prepares to leave for international duty at the African Nations Cup.
The 29-year-old Ivory Coast star missed eight games during last year’s tournament, a period which saw City knocked out of both domestic cup competitions and lose an important Barclays Premier League game at Everton.
City recovered to win the title but Zabaleta is anxious to ensure Toure’s absence, along with that of his brother Kolo and back-up striker Abdul Razak, is not keenly felt this time.
The Argentina international said: “It’s going to be a very tough time for us because we’re going to lose Kolo, Yaya and Abdul, three important players.
“Yaya has been a regular player for a long time. We know how important Yaya is to the team but there are other players who can do the same job.
“Everybody is important for the team and we need to keep working hard.
“Last season, January and February was when we dropped points and we need to try to make sure that doesn’t happen again.”
City had hoped the players would at least be available for Saturday’s FA Cup third-round tie against Watford – which is still more than two weeks before Ivory Coast’s first fixture in South Africa – but any requests seem unlikely to be granted.
First-team coach David Platt said: “They are meeting on Saturday to travel. As far as I know there is no difference in that.
“Yaya, Kolo and Abdul, I don’t think will be available at the weekend unless something changes – but I doubt it.”
Striker Sergio Aguero has also been ruled out of Saturday’s game after suffering a hamstring injury in the New Year’s Day win over Stoke.
City are still waiting to learn the extent of the damage but he is also doubtful for the following week’s trip to Arsenal.