Man City: After 52 Games, Pellegrini's Season Starts Now
We’ve reached the time of the football season where the night games are kicking off in daylight and reputations are being forged for good or ill. Has the season been a glorious success, an unmitigated disaster or a seriously missed opportunity? Is our manager a scrapper or a choker, a winner or a loser, tactical genius or emotional wreck? Us Manchester City fans are more aware than most that the dividing lines between these snap judgements are usually extremely narrow.
Fleet Street’s finest will shortly be pronouncing their verdict on Manuel Pellegrini, a coach the tabloids in particular haven’t got an angle on yet. In his first season, he’s been a football purist, playing the same way week after week, daring teams to score more than City. Opponents have eventually worked out that unless you are Mourinho, boldness is by far the best policy against his selections. Fortune has favoured the brave while teams that came to the Etihad to defend usually copped hidings. He has been rightly praised for this, but he’s not exactly a tabloid figure. We could be waiting some time for his first interview on Sky Sports News from the driver’s seat of his Range Rover as he leaves Carrington – although it has to be said his general managerial philosophy could be summarised as a South American Harry Redknapp – a player’s manager not overly obsessed with tactical doodling who sends out attacking teams he enjoys watching from the technical area,
He is guilty of loving football, but clearly having many interests and concerns beyond the glorious irrelevance and of giving many of the most boring press conferences in Premier League history.
But nearly ten months into the job, it all boils down to five games. Win them, and if Liverpool hold serve under extreme pressure, congratulate them on a fantastic achievement. Alternatively, win them and win the league. Just make the poor performance against Sunderland is the last of the season, and while you are at it, make sure you aren’t unlucky again like you were at Liverpool.
If the season peters out, then words like “failure” will be attached to him by the redtops, even if that failure may be as marginal as David Silva’s to connect absolutely cleanly with Aguero’s cross at Anfield. Perhaps more damagingly, he may be compared unfavourably in one crucial respect with his predecessor at City.
Say what you like about Roberto Mancini, but he was seriously good at this time of year. I am sure it is one of things that earned Alex Ferguson’s respect as an extremely wily opponent. Everybody remembers the six consecutive wins that won City the league, but over his four years at City, he won far more than he lost after county cricket restarted, and Becher’s Brook and Amen Corner were either safely navigated or not . The blemishes were the defeat against Spurs in the game that sorted out the final Champions League place in his first season and his last match, the shambolic cup final defeat, a game that even his harshest critics would agree did not benefit from an ideal preparation.
In between, Mancini delivered a seismic FA Cup semi-final win over United (in my view the game that confirmed City’s arrival as serious contenders rather than wannabes) followed by victory in the final and qualification for the Champions League in 2011, the league in unforgettable circumstances in 2012 and even in the dog days of his time at City, back to back wins at Old Trafford and against Chelsea in the Cup semi-final in 2013.
Pellegrini now has to match Mancini – at his predecessor’s strong suit. Do that and all the other good things he has achieved will instantly look better still. He will point to the League Cup win (one of the good things about City is that we are not snooty about things like the League Cup - we were thrilled to win it).
We can add to that the clever, experienced and sensitive handling of Joe Hart and the evolution of the team – principally in midfield where Fernandinho is much more proactive and dynamic than the admirable but slightly predictable Gareth Barry, and the sweeter tune he has got out of players like Nasri, Dzeko, Kolarov and Garcia that were treading water under Mancini. He will even be able to say that Martin Demichelis is no longer a twitter joke but is a class act.
The improvement in the Champions League will also be noted, although it has to be pointed out that Pellegrini benefited from a draw as kind as it was brutal to Mancini in earlier seasons.
All of this is true, but is only supporting evidence. The biggest games of the season are yet to come. The good news is Pellegrini does have one or two advantages. Firstly, the man has been desperate for City not to be the story all season. At long last, Liverpool have granted him his wish. He will have enjoyed watching Lineker, Hansen and Shearer dissecting Sunderland’s win at Chelsea on Match of the Day. City weren’t mentioned. Good. He can get on with his job quietly. Secondly, it doesn’t matter what Liverpool do, so long as City win. If Pellegrini can summon up a Mancini-style run of spring victories, then if Liverpool hold on, it’s a case of fair play to them, if you win fourteen on the spin you deserve it and we’ll be delivering a crate of champagne to L4. There’s no shame in losing to run like that. If Liverpool can’t quite do it, then City are there, ready to pounce and Pellegrini looks like the calmest man in the room, the one who loves it all but doesn’t take it quite as seriously as everyone else. He will also take exquisite pleasure in finishing ahead of Jose Mourinho, a man he clearly detests.
And if Pellegrini can pull it off, maybe the defining match will be at Goodison Park – a ground Mancini always did poorly at and even suffered one of his few late-season defeats, in 2011. After 52 competitive games, his season is only starting now.