It would be a perverse irony if Manuel Pellegrini’s nemesis became his saviour, albeit by proxy.
It’s only two letters, but ‘if’ is a word with wide ranging and far reaching consequences, especially in relation to the Premier League title tussle, one of the most intriguing for many a year.
If Jose Mourinho can breach the Anfield fortress of the nearly ordained champions-elect, and if Manchester City can emerge with maximum points from games with WBA and Crystal Palace, then Pellegrini will once again have City’s destiny in his grasp.
He and his lack lustre side allowed it to slip away less than a week ago with a ‘disastrous’ 2-2 draw with rock bottom Sunderland. How the press and pundits laughed at ‘moneybags’ City and how they revelled in the discomfort of the sky blues.
The Mourinho-fawning media were singing a different tune after the relegation ‘certainties’ from Wearside inflicted Jose’s first ever Premier League home defeat on Saturday evening.
Never mind Lazarus or ‘JC’ himself over Easter, Sunderland were defying the odds and resurrecting their once seemingly hopeless fight for PL survival, and with it the title dreams of Manchester City.
Pellegrini has shown himself to be statesmanlike in not rising to the bait so often dangled by Mourinho. Quite why the Chelsea manager feels the need to perpetuate his adolescent behaviour and snide comments towards the City boss, only he knows.
There’s bad blood between the pair, but surely it wouldn’t preclude the self-proclaimed ‘Special One’ or, as Mourinho restyled it, at the start the season, the ‘Happy One’, trying to bridge a five point deficit between Chelsea and Liverpool… even if Pellegrini stood to be the main beneficiary.
Tactically, Mourinho has few betters, so if you had to put your money on a team to stifle an attacking flow that resembles the Mersey in full flood, it would be Jose.
There’s an adage that ‘things’ come in threes, hopefully it applies to the PL title run-in; City pegged back by Sunderland, Chelsea sunk by Sunderland so who’s to say Liverpool cannot contribute with a loss to Chelsea or coming a cropper at Crystal Palace?
If – there it is again – if, momentum were to unexpectedly swing back to City (doubtful as it seems) woe betide if they slipped up a second time.
We shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves wondering if the Scousers might falter, it’ll count for nothing if City can’t get 15 points from their remaining five games – a feat by no means certain.
Tony Pulis has performed a Harry Houdini act at Selhurst Park and the Palace boss would love to finally sink City’s title aspirations. He loathes and detests City after suffering Wembley woes with his former clubs Gillingham – in the 1999 Second Division Play-Off Final – and with Stoke in the 2011 FA Cup Final.
He spits out his bile and venom whenever he’s interviewed about City, always referencing City’s Abu Dhabi financial backing.
After losing 1-0 at the Etihad in late December he said he’d just sit on the sidelines ‘smoking a big cigar…’ if he was City’s manager, the pernicious inference being that on-field success would be easily bought.
And if, six points are harvested before the end of the month, City then face their perennial bogey fixture – Everton at Goodison Park – with Roberto Martinez’s team eyeing the prize of a Champions League finish.
Amid some ridiculous calls for Pellegrini to be fired in the wake of the Sunderland disappointment – incidentally did anybody see or hear any media speculation about Mourinho’s future after he LOST, not drew, but LOST to the The Mackems – there has been, what many consider, legitimate criticism of the Chilean.
Some view his insistence on playing attacking football, irrespective of the opposition or the venue, as naive, stubborn or just not tactically savvy. Accusations persist that Pellegrini still underestimates, what might be perceived as ‘lesser’ teams e.g. Wigan in the FA Cup QF and Sunderland in the league.
Fair or unfair, Pellegrini has to step up and ensure that belief courses through the veins of every City player.
He said his players were mentally exhausted after the Liverpool game, hence the below par performance in only narrowly avoiding defeat to a Sunderland side, thoroughly deserving of the draw.
The City squad is stacked with talent, some of it ‘world class’ and they’re all professional footballers. The key word here is professional.
It goes with the job description and ought to mean that the players are fully engaged in the workplace, and are willing and able to apply 100% effort and commitment at all times in seeking to achieve the objectives of their employers.
Any repeat of the lethargy, as witnessed at the Sunderland game, will not be tolerated against an Albion side embroiled in a relegation dogfight.
Jesus Navas is a likely absentee with an ankle injury, whereas Yaya Toure and Matija Nastasic are definite non-starters. The big Bank Holiday bonus looks the likely return of the man who conducts City’s orchestra – David Silva. He was desperately missed against Sunderland and has to be the main contender with Yaya as City’s player of the season.
If it’s a case of City requiring energy and speed then surely Stevan Jovetic and Marcos Lopes must be in with a strong shout to bolster the attack.
Jovetic will be as good as a new signing – if he stays fit – next season. He has the ability and self confidence to take the ball directly at the opposition, forcing defenders to commit themselves to challenges.
The Montenegrin simply has to start against The Baggies and provide a recovering Sergio Aguero with the support he needs as he builds back up to match fitness.
Similarly a defence that had gone nearly nine hours without conceding a Premier League goal has managed to haemorrhage an average of two per game over the last three matches.
One point from the last six tells its own sorry story. There cannot and must not be any repeats of last Wednesday night’s performance – for goodness sake there’s a bloody title in the offing here!
Silva’s imminent return shouldn’t diminsh the need for Samir Nasri to spark the team into life.
Despite his late equaliser against Sunderland, and nearly grabbing a last ditch winner, Nasri was disappointing, in a season where he has so often excelled. It’s easy to look good in a winning team and Nasri, like all his team mates, are all the better when Silva plays.
As a staunch advocate of Pellegrini and, yes of course he should still be in charge next season, it would nonetheless reflect very poorly on his leadership, if his team fail to fully apply themselves to the task in hand tonight.
A nine point lead looks unassailable at this late stage of the season, but with two games in hand, City must be ready to take full advantage of any Liverpool slip up.
That starts by NOT underestimating an Albion team in this, their 300th PL match. Baggies’ boss Pepe Mel is known to Pellegrini from their time as La Liga rivals.
City have not gone two PL games without a home win since December 2012, now would not be a good time to repeat the feat.
No ‘ifs’ no ‘buts’ just win and win well, goal difference could yet be a key factor.
By David Walker