Monday 22 January 2018

Forget Munich gaffe -- healer Pellegrini taking City to title

Chilean not getting the credit he deserves for beating Bayern

Manuel Pellegrini is congratulated by Bayern Munich manager Pep Guardiola
Manuel Pellegrini is congratulated by Bayern Munich manager Pep Guardiola
Joe Hart
James Lawton

James Lawton

By early afternoon tomorrow, it could be that Manuel Pellegrini will have at least one hand on the throat of Arsene Wenger. It would confirm that if he has a mild manner, it should not disguise the most serious intent.

Beating Arsenal at the Etihad Stadium, with the help of major players being returned to the action, would leave him just three points off the Premier League leaders. He might be likened to a proven, powerfully acting stayer beginning to make his move.

This is despite the fact that Pellegrini has suffered a fusillade of criticism in the wake of this week's Champions League victory at Bayern Munich.

Not only did Pellegrini receive scant praise for the kind of triumph which these days is supposed to rock the foundations of the European game, he was assigned nothing less humiliating than a dunce's cap.

Former City player and German international Didi Hamann, a European Cup winner with Liverpool, led the castigation of the 60-year-old Chilean and his entire coaching staff for failing to grasp that one more goal would have made City group winners and nearly certain to avoid an immediate sudden-death challenge from such as Real or Atletico Madrid, Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain.

Hamann says Pellegrini was the author of a 'cock-up', which really only goes to show that, in football, it is madness ever to believe that your wine glass -- or in this case stein of foaming beer -- is ever anything more than half full.

The good news, though, is that if the City manager hadn't fully acquainted himself with the tactical options at the Allianz Arena, he is still showing a fair body of explanation as to why the club turned to him in the wake of Roberto Mancini's departure.

Today, the team which last spring unashamedly celebrated the parting with Mancini not only look at peace with themselves, but well equipped to outrun both Arsenal and the currently uninspiring Chelsea.

Pellegrini left out such key performers as Yaya Toure, Vincent Kompany, Samir Nasri and, most controversially in the final stages of the game, Sergio Aguero, in Munich and now he asks for some thunderous confirmation that he has indeed recreated the team ethos that, so recently, seemed to have been abandoned by an expensive but increasingly dysfunctional squad.

It is not a huge reach to imagine that City will tomorrow evening be looking like the strongest force in the Premier League.

Mike Summerbee -- now an official club ambassador on the strength of his huge impact when City last dominated, albeit briefly, English football 40-odd years ago -- would say so inevitably, of course, but he does it with a passion that runs a little deeper than a workaday party line.

"There has been criticism of the team's away record and the manager has walked into a storm over the tactics in Munich. But if you know anything about football, you know that there was no guarantee that we would have scored the extra goal if Aguero had come on," says Summerbee.

"Let's not forget we weren't playing mugs -- we were playing the champions of Europe. And City did it brilliantly.

OUTSTANDING

"The fact is Pellegrini is doing a brilliant job. The team are pulling together and showing some absolutely outstanding individual talent. They are beginning to look like the real thing."

Yes, Summerbee would say that, wouldn't he, but then off or on the payroll it is not hard to see some of the ingredients that have always been apparent in Pellegrini's work. He is a builder, as befits a highly qualified civil engineer, and he is also a healer.

His handling of goalkeeper Joe Hart, restored successfully to the first team in Munich, makes a striking contrast to the approach of Mancini.

While the Italian publicly chastised Hart for his comments after the general negligence that brought a dispiriting defeat last season at Real Madrid -- comments which a wider world reasonably considered to be notably honest and free of any personal agenda -- Pellegrini appears to have coaxed back some of the old confidence in England's goalkeeper.

Towards the end of his regime, Mancini was said to go days, even weeks, without any communication with leading players. In another stark contrast, Pellegrini appears to be skilfully melding the talent of the old order, Aguero, Toure and Silva, with that of the dynamic new star, Alvaro Negredo. The Beast of Seville is shaping up as a deadly but distinctly agreeable team-mate.

None of this can be too much of a surprise to anyone who has made even a passing study of Pellegrini's career. Some do sniff that his only bauble on this side of the Atlantic -- after a consistently successful career in South America -- is the Uefa Intertoto won with Villarreal in 2004. Yet the sneer is a travesty of detached assessment.

The fact is that Pellegrini's virtues were clearly visible at every stage of his eight-year Spanish odyssey. He over-achieved superbly at Villarreal, the little ceramics town near Valencia. He made the Champions League semi-finals in 2006, when his team administered a profound and near fatal scare to Arsenal. Two years later, he finished second in La Liga between Real and Barca.

The latter achievement earned him a year's trial at the Bernabeu, where he was adjudged, bizarrely, to be a failure despite breaking the club points record, with 96, and losing the title to Barca by a single victory. At Malaga last season, he was just stoppage-time away from beating Borussia Dortmund for a second appearance in the Champions League semi-finals.

Now, with City shedding their adolescent image in Europe and closing on the Premier League lead, a familiar pattern has emerged. It is of a football man very sure of his values (if not all the refinements of tie-breaking calculation) and his picture of a soundly developing team.

In Munich he said: "It is very important to be first in the group, but it is not the most important thing. That is to believe you are growing as a team and have no reason to fear anyone."

Hamann talked about a cock-up. Others, quite legitimately, might speak of a team growing before their eyes.

Irish Independent

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