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Tuesday 23 September 2014

Glitter of silverware can give Pellegrini freedom to shine

Published 03/03/2014 | 02:30

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Manchester City manager Manuel Pellegrini celebrates with the Capital One Cup after the Capital One Cup Final at Wembley
Manchester City manager Manuel Pellegrini celebrates with the Capital One Cup after the Capital One Cup Final at Wembley

There comes a moment in a League Cup celebration when everyone remembers what the party is about. The presentation stage goes up and the tickertape "eruption" has the awkward feel of a fringe production. A team that cost hundreds of millions of pounds to build has to remember to feel grateful and overjoyed.

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City squared this circle impressively with the 12th major trophy in their history. More importantly, it was the first in England for the Chilean 'Engineer' hired to soothe the nerves of players antagonised by Roberto Mancini.

Not only did City display respect for the competition with the sincerity of their rejoicing. They had to fight to win it, too, after Sunderland's tenacity and boldness had cast doubt on City's claim to be the country's most gifted team.

Mancini's breakthrough was an FA Cup victory over Stoke with the approach of summer. Pellegrini's was to beat relegation-threatened opponents on a cold Sunday in March. For that to be City's only triumph in this campaign would send the hounds of inquisition back to Pellegrini's cv in search of an answer to the question: why was he hired, from the next tier down of elite European managers, when bigger names might have been available?

EXERCISE

But to view this 3-1 victory over Sunderland as an exercise in buying time would cheapen the performance, and the effect it might now have on City's quest to regain the Premier League title they lost to Manchester United.

It would cheapen Yaya Toure's clipped, curling, long-range equaliser, and Samir Nasri's beautifully constructed second, or Toure's surging break from inside his own half, which set up Jesus Navas, after Steven Fletcher had blown a chance to make it 2-2 moments earlier. It would also downplay Sunderland's contribution to this spectacle, which started with a long-ball over the top from Adam Johnson to Fabio Borini, who scored the first of four fine goals in a memorable contest.

Sunderland may be in the relegation zone (they would escape that swamp, surely, playing like this), but this game was as much a struggle of hearts as wallets: at least until City scored twice with a thrilling burst of ingenuity. Until then, they had been poking and probing across the edge of Sunderland's box. They looked pretty but flawed. Then Toure struck his peach of a shot and City again looked like a side who can hurt you any place, any time.

The team, in other words, that Pellegrini was employed to unleash on English football. All through February, City have been clinging to the promise of all those lacerating wins from November to January.

The majesty of their attacking play evaporated with the 1-0 home league defeat to Chelsea on February 3, which jangled the nerves of their fans. A few days later, they posted a result that encapsulated the downturn.

City had beaten Norwich City 7-0 at home. After losing to Chelsea, they drew 0-0 at Carrow Road.

Throw in Barcelona's 2-0 Champions League win at the Etihad Stadium and doubts about the 'Quadruple' multiplied into panic. Part of the reason for City's seemingly terminal defeat to Barcelona was Martin Demichelis' red card for a penalty box foul on Lionel Messi. If Pellegrini is prone to aberration, beyond playing too few midfielders against the very best opposition, it is his belief that Demichelis is the right partner for Vincent Kompany.

Now 33, and a veteran of many battles with Bayern Munich and Argentina, Demichelis is too often an accident not so much waiting to happen as one speeding towards City's back-four on a bullet train.

"Not the youngest or the quickest," observed Didi Hamann, the former City midfielder, in the official programme notes.

Pellegrini is entitled to have his favourites but no City fan will feel confident that Demichelis is the man to repel all-comers as the team try to win their 12 remaining league fixtures and hold off Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal.

If Pellegrini has one of the easiest jobs in management, in one sense, his extraordinary outburst against the Swedish referee in the Barcelona tie suggested he has nightmares about flashing petrodollar signs. City's new Spanish brains trust gifted him a chance to turn a lifetime of commendable toil into something far more spectacular. The post-Barca meltdown showed him to be less phlegmatic than he seems determined to appear.

His great privilege is to be surrounded by players with the talent and spirit to change the course of games. Toure was anonymous in the first half and an aristocrat in the second. Nasri has added purpose to prettiness: something Mancini was always on at him to do. Kompany, who was at fault for the first goal, is a mighty presence in defence: a captain to his soul.

Europe may be lost but the FA Cup campaign remains alive, with a chance to avenge last year's Wembley defeat to Wigan in the next round. But what an excitingly poised league programme. Chelsea are now where Jose Mourinho wants them to be. Liverpool are arguably playing better football than City, certainly in phases. For City to glide through and retake the domestic championship, this League Cup win will need to start a new spell of near invincibility.

The first South American manager to win a trophy in England has also now captured his first prize outside of Chile and Argentina. At 60, he might feel defensive about the League Cup being the first big entry on his resume since he left River Plate for Villarreal in 2004. But the manner of this victory promised much. Now we will learn how good he really is. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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