The future of Joe Hart remains unclear after Manchester City powered towards a place in the Champions League group stage as he could only watch.
The England goalkeeper was left on the bench for a second match in succession by new manager Pep Guardiola as City thrashed Steaua Bucharest 5-0 in the first leg of their play-off in Romania.
Hart is now being increasingly linked with a move away from the Etihad Stadium while City continue to be linked with a move for Barcelona keeper Claudio Bravo.
It is a remarkable change of situation for 29-year-old Hart, who has been one of the mainstays of City’s successes in recent years and was one of their most consistent performers last season.
Guardiola refused to be drawn on the matter after the game at Bucharest’s Arena Nationala and defender Pablo Zabaleta would not offer much comment as he stopped for media interviews.
“At the moment Joe Hart is still part of the Manchester City squad,” the Argentinian said of his team-mate, alongside whom he has won two Premier League titles.
“I know there has been speculation about leaving and stuff like that but at the moment he is a Manchester City player, so I am very happy to see him.”
Guardiola has taken a similarly tough decision on midfielder Yaya Toure, leaving him out of the opening two games of the season completely, while Eliaquim Mangala, Wilfried Bony and Samir Nasri have not featured either.
With more than £150million spent on new players over the summer, competition for places in Guardiola’s side is fierce.
Zabaleta said: “We are a big squad with two big players in each position. It is going to be tough, the competition is there.
“I think that happens at the big teams, where you have big squads, but the competition for places is very healthy.
“We are a team and we believe that the team is more important than the individuals and of course we need to continue that way. That is the team spirit we need to win trophies this season, so the group is the most important thing.”
The season now looks certain to feature another Champions League challenge after City all but guaranteed their place in the group stage with a superb display in the Romanian capital.
Sergio Aguero claimed a hat-trick – after missing two early penalties – while David Silva and Nolito, with his first City goal, also got on the scoresheet. Shots from Aleksandar Kolarov and Nolito which hit the woodwork were among other numerous chances City created.
Zabaleta said: “I felt we were on top of them during the whole game. We played really well with the ball, we could have scored three or four more goals. We created a lot of chances, we were solid.
“I think it was a fantastic performance. It is a big step forward in terms of confidence.”
Zabaleta, however, was not taking anything for granted ahead of next week’s second leg, even though it should be a formality.
“I think we make a big mistake if we think it is finished,” the 31-year-old said. “There are still 90 minutes to play.
“Of course this was a big step forward to being in the Champions League this season but we need to finish it off now next week.”