Sunday's derby game will be the first that Ferguson has not been involved since 1986 after his 26-year reign at Old Trafford ended in the summer following his retirement.
For much of that time United held sway but City's emergence as genuine title contenders in recent years saw an already fierce rivalry intensify.
Zabaleta believes none of that tension will have been lost with Ferguson's departure, particularly as his replacement David Moyes has a good record against City.
Before leaving Everton in the summer, Moyes had won six of his previous eight games against the club and Zabaleta is ready for another tough clash at the Etihad Stadium.
The right-back said: "It won't be any different - even without Fergie they are still Man United.
"Ferguson was a great manager and an important person for the club, and for their fans it was great to have him on the bench.
"But now it is a different part of history, and we have to respect David Moyes because he is the new manager.
"It was always tough for us to beat Everton when he was there.
"It's a special game, one you want to play in, and to win.
"We know how important it is to the Premier League.
"It is still United. They will come to the Etihad to try to win the game."
City are also finding their feet under a new manager in Manuel Pellegrini but go into the derby encouraged by an impressive performance in Tuesday's 3-0 win over Viktoria Plzen in the Champions League.
City are anxious to progress in that competition after failures in the previous two seasons.
Zabaleta, 28, said: "It was important to win. Every time you win you get confidence, and it's another chance to make it happen in the Champions League.
"The last two years have been frustrating for us, so it was important to play well and to keep a clean sheet."
City's European campaign will continue as champions Bayern Munich visit Manchester in a fortnight. CSKA Moscow are their other opponents in Group D.
Under previous manager Roberto Mancini they were unable to reach the knockout stages but after finally winning their first game, hopes are high this time.
Zabaleta said: "It's important to win the first game, as it is a good step forward.
"You learn from your mistakes, and when we look at our team and the quality we have, you expect us to do well in all competitions.
"That's why the last two years in Champions league have been disappointing for us.
"We have had tough groups, but now we have a big chance to go through to the next round."
City are hopeful playmaker David Silva will be fit to return from a thigh injury to face United while defenders Gael Clichy and Micah Richards were also being assessed.