As Manuel Pellegrini heads out of Manchester City it’s imperative that his soon-to-be ex-employers stay where they’ve been all season long – in the top four of the Premier League.
When City began the season with five consecutive wins, without conceding a goal, they were odds on favourites for a third PL title in five years – virtually unstoppable.
Finishing outside the Champions League places was inconceivable.
Fast forward nine months and the unthinkable prospect of Pep Guardiola inheriting a squad heading for a Europa League spot wasn’t such an outrageous proposition after all – it was a grim reality.
Last Sunday’s 2-2 draw with Arsenal, followed by an ignominious Etihad farewell to The Engineer, left City teetering on the brink of Thursday nights in Europe next autumn.
The indignity of surrendering a top four place to, of all teams, Manchester United, was inexplicable – how the hell had it come to this?
As we now know, City were handed a ‘Get Out of Jail’ card when the Happy Hammers – the departing Irons of the Boleyn Ground – smashed the Trafford troglodytes, both on and off the field on Tuesday night.
City’s European destiny for 2016/17 is now, once again, in their own hands as they shape up to face Swansea City on Sunday.
A draw will guarantee fourth spot. A win, coupled with a highly unlikely Arsenal defeat to hopeless, hapless Villa, would elevate City to a third place finish and avoid a tricky two-legged Champions League qualifier in August.
A loss in South Wales and a United win over Bournemouth simply does not compute!
The rather unseemly last day scramble, into what will hopefully be a sixth consecutive Champions League campaign, owes much to a number of ‘ins’ at the Etihad:
Undeniably, injuries are part and parcel of football – always have been and always will be – but modern day squad ‘rotation’ of players is supposed to offset the worst effects.
City suffered more than most this season, whereas Leicester City – deserving Champions that they are – were comparatively injury free.
In truth what team could withstand the long term absence of players of the calibre of Kompany (25 PL games missed*) Zabaleta (25*) Silva (14*) De Bruyne (12*) Aguero (9*)?
City’s detractors misleadingly refer to ‘the ‘size of City’s squad’ – the Etihad squad is the same as every other club – 25 players.
The misnomer that good and bad refereeing decisions balance themselves out has cost City in some of the big games.
Aguero denied a certain penalty away at Leicester, Everton’s John Stones wiping out Raheem Sterling in the last second at the Etihad, the same Sterling being idiotically – some might say, maliciously – penalised by Clattenburg against Spurs for a ‘handball’ that didn’t happen.
This will be the same Twattenburg awarded the FA and Champions League Finals as his reward for yet another season riddled with strange and questionable decisions.
Yes, City did benefit occasionally from officiating gaffes e.g. Sterling’s out of play pull back for KDB’s strike in the League Cup semi final against Everton, but City were sinned against far more than they were the sinners.
Bemoaning City’s luck is one thing, the real truth lies in a litany of underwhelming displays, often bereft of on and off the field leadership, individual errors and, at the worst of times, a lack of professionalism and application by some players.
The only thing consistent about City this season has been their inconsistency.
After back-to-back 6-1 and 5-1 slaughters of Newcastle and Bournemouth in October, it took until April to once again record consecutive Premier League wins – disgraceful stuff.
Worse still is City’s abject record against the top teams – just a solitary win over Southampton – offset by home and away defeats to Spurs and Liverpool, and scraping one point out of six against Leicester, Arsenal, Manure and West Ham.
It’s easy – too easy – to claim City’s title hopes tumbled once news of the managerial changeover became official on the last day of the January transfer window.
Far more damaging was the loss of Kevin De Bruyne just four days earlier, carried off in that momentous 3-1 win over Everton, which took City to Wembley and ultimately League Cup glory.
The Willy Caballero Show and progress into the quarter finals of the CL couldn’t mask a wretched run in the league, where City squandered 14 out of 21 points in the absence of KDB.
There’s easily half-a-dozen players who will surely not survive Guardiola’s arrival (compile your own hit list) but, as a collective, City’s form dipped lower than that dachshund in the Vitality Health Life Insurance adverts with Jessica Ennis-Hill!
Defenders couldn’t defend, midfielders could create and attackers couldn’t score.
The CFA training manual relating to closing down opponents, denying them space, tracking back and pressing hard, may as well have been written in ancient Mandarin – hardly any blighter in Sky Blue or Glow in the Dark City Green – was ready, willing and able to do it.
Having failed abysmally against top of the table teams, City also contrived to drop six away points at relegated Villa, Norwich and Newcastle.
Injuries may have affected the backbone of the side, but it doesn’t come close to explaining or excusing a procession of spineless showings, more recently the shocker at St. Mary’s and the toothless display in the Santiago Bernabeu.
It’s a measure of the expectations at the Etihad that a season that has brought silverware, a Champions League Semi Final berth and – fingers crossed – Champions League qualification, is viewed as mediocre.
In truth, Manuel Pellegrini was always ‘minding the shop’ until Pep finally hooked up once again with his Spanish compatriots Ferran Soriano and Txiki Begiristain.
The likeable 62-year old has enhanced City’s European pedigree, but – and it’s a significant but – that’ll count for little if City surrender at the Liberty Stadium and slither into the Europa League.
Not trusted by a significant percentage of City supporters, Pellegrini has long divided opinion among the fans.
Often accused of not having a proverbial Plan B, City’s sitting MP has taken all of any flak doing the rounds, over the last three seasons.
Not given due credit for his achievements, he steadied a rocking boat when the tempestuous Roberto Mancini left City in disarray.
Perhaps hindered by some questionable transfer acquisitions – who is the real powerbroker and wheeler-dealer in chief at City, is it the incumbent manager or Txiki – the cool Chilean has absorbed all the heat from disgruntled fans and a usually hostile media mob.
He’s more than done his job in the eyes of the City hierarchy, if not through the sceptical gaze of many fans.
The presumption that Guardiola will deliver sustained Premier League success is well founded based on his domestic triumphs in Spain and Germany.
Whether he can turn City into the Champions of Europe is a more contentious issue after failing at three attempts with a club far more accustomed to picking up European club football’s biggest prize.
Any Pep talk will have to wait.
For now it’s down to Manuel and his team to fulfil the maxim, ‘You have to be in it to win it.’
A final day victory and the possibility of a twin gold strike – Sergio for the Golden Boot and Joe for the Golden Glove – will chase away any dark clouds and put a healthier sky blue hue on MP’s three-year Etihad tenure.
By David Walker
www.readbutneverred.com @ReadButNeverRed @djwskyblu