Monday 26 September 2016

Defeat just not an option as Pellegrini bids for grand finale

Jason Burt

Published 24/02/2016 | 02:30

Manuel Pellegrini in relaxed mood in Kiev yesterday ahead of tonight’s Champions League showdown. SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images
Manuel Pellegrini in relaxed mood in Kiev yesterday ahead of tonight’s Champions League showdown. SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images

Manuel Pellegrini wants to make history before he is consigned to history.

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Never before have Manchester City reached the last eight of the Champions League which, given their resources, scale and ambition is unpalatable, even for a club relatively new to the top table of European football.

That comparatively modest target will be achieved should they overcome Dynamo Kiev, the Ukrainian champions and runners-up in Chelsea's group, over the two legs starting with tonight's fixture at the Olympic Stadium.

The tie is open to supporters after UEFA controversially reduced the ban imposed for the home fans' racist behaviour.

For City, anything short of progressing through this round is unthinkable, especially in the context of last Sunday's FA Cup exit when through Pellegrini's team selection they effectively surrendered the fifth-round tie to Chelsea.

Nightmare

And so a nightmare scenario has already started to unfold for City which needs to be banished. It involves them failing to negotiate four fixtures in four competitions in 11 days, causing their season to implode.

The first game is gone and they are out of the FA Cup, having prioritised the other three. This Champions League tie is followed by the League Cup final at Wembley against Liverpool on Sunday and three days later they face the same opponents at Anfield in the Premier League.

Lose that and they could be 12 points behind leaders Leicester City and just three points ahead of fifth-placed Manchester United if other results go against them.

Pellegrini is well aware of this and of the Pep Guardiola question. He faced it again here in Kiev from a Ukrainian journalist, who bluntly asked him whether the knowledge that Guardiola would replace him this summer had become a distraction for the players in what could develop into a perfect storm.

"No, really that is not a problem," Pellegrini stressed. "All the players are just thinking in this season, that we have important challenges from now until the end of the season and the best way is to be focused in every game.

"Now it is Champions League, after that we have the final at Wembley on Sunday, and on Wednesday we will return to the Premier League. So, it's very easy because we are focused on having a season that works."

Except it has been far from easy. City are already on a run of three consecutive defeats and three more would be horrific, especially if they returned from Ukraine with a daunting deficit to overturn in the second leg.

By the time that March 15 match comes around, the Champions League could represent City's last chance.

That 'last-chance' scenario was put to Pablo Zabaleta, who sat alongside Pellegrini in the pre-match press conference and who, like the manager, may not be at the club next season. Zabaleta has one more year on his contract and is 31.

"We know this club is making a lot of effort to bring in top players," the Argentina defender said. "So we want to have success in the Champions League. We're 100pc focused on this. It's a big chance for us to go through to the next round."

It is a very big chance but Pellegrini has undoubtedly raised the pressurebecause of his team selection last Sunday.

Yes, City have a hectic run of games now but the FA Cup tie was only their second game in 15 days, while Kiev is a destination that sounds far more remote and daunting than it is. With a tailwind, the flight from London is under three hours.

Pellegrini has to be careful. Eight years ago Arsenal were five points clear at the top of the league, fielded a weakened team in the FA Cup fifth round, lost 4-0 to Manchester United and never recovered, winning just one of their next eight league matches and losing in the Champions League against Liverpool.

The Kiev tie needs to be a time to regroup. At this stage in the past two seasons, City have lost to Barcelona. Now they should progress and then all kind of possibilities would open up.

Pellegrini will not be City manager next season. We now, officially, know that. But his legacy could be tainted if he does not achieve some results quickly. Starting with this vital fixture.

(© Daily Telegraph, London)

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