Wednesday, April 14, 2021

IN YER HEAD, SON


Manuel
Pellegrini’s legacy to Manchester City was to bequeath memories of three years of swashbuckling football that ended with a result and, more importantly, a performance, that has left such an indelible mark on the club’s psyche that the stain can still clearly be seen today.

City’s last win under the Chilean fell on 23rd April 2016, a 4-0 home beating of Mark Hughes’ Stoke City. The league campaign dribbled to an unsatisfactory halt with a chaotic and uninspired defeat at Southampton and two draws with Arsenal and Swansea. A colourless 4th place finish had thus been secured by a side, who had been leading the table in late November.

The only other games the club played after the Stoke stroll were in continental competition, the dreaded Champions League. Pellegrini remains the only manager to take City to the semi-finals. Sadly, he is also the man who took City there and then summarily failed to do the occasion justice.

In two games against Real Madrid, City looked first surprised by their grand surroundings, then cowed by the prospect of being so close to the booty. A psychological axe fell on the common psyche that has left such a deep cleft, all the wiles and ways of Pep Guardiola have so far failed to weld things back together again.

In 2016, the 0-0 first leg draw in Manchester left City with an uphill task in the Bernabeu, but it is the second leg performance in the home of the club that treats the competition as its own that has stayed in the mind all this time. City were insipid, bashful and, in the end, a little bit cowardly. The Chilean’s reign, a time characterised by the goal-drenched adventures of a side that often contained Sergio Aguero, Alvaro Negredo, Stevan Jovetic and Jesus Navas blazing in on goal from all angles, ended with the spectacle of a side set up to go sideways in a match where they needed to head forwards.

Beaten in the end by the slimmest of margins, a bizarrely constructed Fernando own goal the only difference between the two sides after 180 minutes of awful combat, we left the great theatre of the Bernabeu that night wondering why there had been such a lack of fighting spirit.

Where had all that gung-ho energy dissipated to?


Fernandinho tussles with Cristiano Ronaldo in the Bernabeu


The defeat in Madrid, sloppy and downbeat as it was, represented Pellegrini’s final steps in charge of the sky-blue cause. Two more drawn league games followed and the season was done. So too was the Chilean’s three-year passage through English football in charge of Manchester City.
 

The man who had thrust Villareal and Malaga into the final stretches of the Champions League, had hauled the unwilling old carcass of Manchester City there too, but his side had displayed none of the dramatic fireworks his previous teams had in going out of the competition. His Villareal had lost at the bitter end to Arsenal by dint of Riquelme's penalty miss and his fearless Malaga team had gone out to, wait for it, Borussia Dortmund, in one of the most incident-packed, eye-wobbling games the competition has thrown up in recent times.



The fallout of City's no-show in the Bernabeu has been lasting. 

Instead of heralding a new dawn of regular final four appearances, the club under the auspices of Pep Guardiola has developed a fabulous, all-devouring allergy to them. Liverpool, Tottenham and Lyon have all dealt City mortal blows in the quarter finals, while Monaco, feisty and underrated, even knocked the Blues out in the Round of 16. Every time success has looked primed to go off, it has exploded great sheets of custard into our faces instead.

Pellegrini’s 2016 semi-final remains the highwater mark in the Champions League for a club that has won four league titles, two FA Cups, five League Cups and three Community Shields since 2010. A feeling of underachievement has grown slowly but surely into a deep-rooted psychosis.

Which is why this evening’s game in Dortmund carries such heavy significance.

This is a tie and an opponent that City should be able to deal with. Paris St Germain, the team waiting in the semi-final, and ironically the side Pellegrini's City had knocked out in the quarter finals in 2016, are clearly a different kettle of fish. Their second leg with Bayern Munich showcased two sides with attacking potential far beyond anything John Stones and Ruben Dias have dealt with so competently this season in the Premier League (although it is an edifying thought to recall that City finished the Real Madrid semi-final with a *slightly less talented* back four of Sagna, Otamendi, Mangala and Clichy...). 

The Germans, however, despite sticking rigidly to a thorough, well considered game plan at the Etihad, showed in their casual giving away of possession in midfield that they can be picked off if the right level of clinical finishing can be found. City’s floundering mess of a performance against Leeds perhaps does not bode well on that front, but the stakes, and *half of the team, will be very different this evening in North Rhine Westphalia to the one that puttered 29 chances into the advertising hoardings on Saturday.

This match is as much to be won in the head as on the pitch for the Blues. Put in a marker here and a semi-final match-up with PSG can be treated as a surmountable challenge. What would then await in the final would not be of any higher caliber than the French champions. But, to do this, Guardiola must find a way to control his own tactical demons, banish the negative thoughts that descend on all associated with the club on such occasions and get his side playing the crisp, attacking football that has seen them sail past the pack to dominate this season’s Premier League campaign.

As ever, the prize is tantalizingly close, the smell of the trophy polish is flaring the senses, but so too are the groans and the cackles of all those dark ghosts of the past.

*ironically, the aforementioned Stoke game, Manuel Pellegrini’s final victory as City manager, also included a first team shorn of its stars, as Guardiola chose to do last weekend against Leeds. Both Vincent Kompany and Kevin de Bruyne were rested from the league match in prospect of a tougher battle against Real Madrid.










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