Pellegrini happy to sacrifice cup as City focus on Dynamo
Manuel Pellegrini did not use the expression "down to the bare bones", but otherwise his Harry Redknapp impression was almost perfect as he revealed he had only 13 fit players for today's FA Cup fifth-round tie at Chelsea and would have to promote some of the younger members of his squad.
"We always like to put out a strong team in all competitions and my priority is always the next game," the Manchester City manager said. "But maybe this time will be an exception. There are some moments when you have to make an intelligent decision about what is best for the team. Getting the team selection right for this match has given me a big problem. It would not have been quite so difficult had we been able to play on the Saturday."
Pellegrini lost that battle some time ago and, though he is right to point out that other leagues generally have only one domestic cup competition and frequently switch fixtures to help clubs with upcoming games in the Champions League, it remains City's own decision to fly to Ukraine tomorrow for Wednesday's last-16 first leg against Dynamo Kyiv. An alternative would have been to use the day after the Chelsea game as a rest day and fly to Ukraine on Tuesday.
"That would not be ideal preparation," Pellegrini explained. "When you fly so far east, you lose three hours, your training day is completely disrupted. We thought it best to get the flight and the time lag out of the way and have a full day of preparation as normal.
"We took a risk last season in flying back from Abu Dhabi on the day before an FA Cup tie against Middlesbrough and it didn't work, but the circumstances were different then. If you fly back from Abu Dhabi, you get here three hours early."
Even before the Chelsea game was switched to today, you could see where City's priorities lay. Pellegrini is not about to pretend a cup tie that pits last season's champions against the runners-up is what he would have asked for at this stage of the season, and neither can he promise the team he puts out at Stamford Bridge will be strong enough to justify the game's tie-of-the-round billing.
"We told the fans one week ago that we are going to play with a young team," he said. "That's all we can do, I hope they understand. If they choose not to pay for the ticket because it is not a real game any longer, I understand that, too.
"For me, it is very difficult. All the other countries in Europe have just one cup. We have two and I have tried to support them both. But the situation eventually becomes impossible. Should we manage to stay in the FA Cup and also reach the quarter-final of the Champions League for the first time, someone will have to tell me how we can fit in all the games. It is impossible."
In fairness to Pellegrini, he is not the first Premier League manager to find the FA Cup tends to work to the detriment of teams with Champions League ambitions. Alex Ferguson regularly put out weakened sides in the domestic competition. Pellegrini has injury problems, too, with Kevin De Bruyne, Samir Nasri and Wilfried Bony among a list of players he is unable to call on, and he has just seen his side lose their last two home games in the league to title rivals. What is a manager in his last season at a club supposed to do? Pellegrini described last week as difficult, but this week brings Chelsea, Dynamo and a League Cup final against Liverpool in the space of eight days.
"We weren't expecting to drop league points at home, and it is frustrating not to be able to get back to league action to try and put things right," he said. "But we analysed with the players a lot of the things we are not doing well, so I hope that in the two big games we have coming up this week, we are going to return to our normal performances."
Note that the manager said two big games there, not three. He seems to have overlooked today's contest, at least in terms of the importance of the result. Which is actually fair enough. City are already in one cup final and, as he prepares to make way for Pep Guardiola, the possibility of claiming the first silverware of the season next Sunday is bound to appeal to Pellegrini. No more and no less than the prospect of taking City into the Champions League last eight. City's growth in the Champions League knockout stages has been stunted at this stage by Barcelona in the past, but this season they have already gone further than Manchester United and have an easier route to the quarter-finals.
Not that a wily old bird like Pellegrini is taking anything for granted. "When we were eliminated by Barcelona, it was not said that Barcelona were a good team, it was said that City are a bad team that can't play in Europe," he observed. "Now we have won our group for the first time and we must try to demonstrate we are a better team than Kyiv.
"I am glad that Uefa have decided to lift the ban on supporters because, whatever the crime, playing football without fans is one of the worst decisions that can be taken. I don't like to play in an empty stadium, it isn't good for football. I have watched Kyiv's group games and they are a good team. We cannot allow ourselves to think it will be easy. If we do that, we could go out.
"I always think back to when I was at Malaga. We were the team everyone wanted to be drawn against, but we managed to put out some good sides. Our performance is the important thing."
Sunday Indo Sport