Friday 23 February 2018

Pellegrini seeks glorious swansong to wipe away pain of Real sacking

Chilean was the victim of murky politics when he lost his job in Madrid

Manchester City manager Manuel Pellegrini will be looking to depart the club on a high note Photo: Reuters / Jason Cairnduff
Manchester City manager Manuel Pellegrini will be looking to depart the club on a high note Photo: Reuters / Jason Cairnduff

James Ducker

Manuel Pellegrini knew what was coming at Manchester City. He also knew what was coming at Real Madrid, but do not confuse the two.

At City he was still valued, still appreciated, still treated with respect while they pursued Pep Guardiola behind the scenes with his full knowledge and, for that matter, still is.

At the Etihad Stadium this evening, City face Real in the first leg of their Champions League semi-final as Pellegrini attempts to topple his former employers en route to a glorious swansong as manager of a club he will shortly depart.

The passage that eventually led to Jose Mourinho replacing Pellegrini at Real, though, was another story, a soap opera with the Chilean positioned firmly in the role of expendable political football.

He said last week that the Madrid experience was the "most painful" of his career, and, sifting through the madness and systematic campaign waged against him in the Spanish media that, according to many reports, had the club's fingerprints all over it, it is easy to understand why.

During a season in charge of River Plate more than a decade ago, Pellegrini had to be smuggled out of the stadium with fans baying for blood in the wake of a 2-1 defeat at home by Boca Juniors in Argentina's most fearsome derby.

The physical threat of violence would terrify most but Pellegrini seemed to have much less of a problem with the "life-and-death" attitude to football in Argentina than the murky politics of Real, where someone would be saying one thing but doing the opposite.

Timing is everything in football and so, while Pellegrini had the benefit of being appointed as Real coach in the summer of 2009 when the club broke the world transfer record to buy Cristiano Ronaldo for £80m from Manchester United, the signing, more ominously, also happened to be the centrepiece of a galactico restoration project by returning president Florentino Perez. Moreover, Perez never truly wanted Pellegrini so his card was marked from the start.

The manager who had worked wonders on a shoestring budget at Villarreal, putting noses out of joint at Barcelona and Real in the process, was the choice of director-general Jorge Valdano, who craved stability. For as long as he realistically could, Valdano fought for his man.

Pellegrini might also note that Zinedine Zidane, the coach against whom he will pit his wits in this semi-final but at the time an adviser to Perez, also defended him. But Perez was unmoved.

Pellegrini knew just three games into the season that he would be sacked, long before a humiliating 4-0 defeat by third-tier club Alcorcon in the Copa del Rey in October ramped up the aggressive movement against him.

He had considered resigning in pre-season when it became clear that the squad were little more than Perez's plaything.

He had no say in the £220m spent on Ronaldo, Kaka, Karim Benzema and Xabi Alonso among others and, in his first press conference, had spoken about the importance of Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben to the team's balance. Less than a fortnight later, the pair had been sold, reunited only at the end of the season when they came face-to-face for Inter Milan and Bayern Munich respectively in the Champions League final. Pellegrini later remarked that it was no good having an orchestra with the 10 best guitarists if there was no pianist.

"We had a lot of strikers and too few midfielders," Pellegrini said. "It was not a team to win the Champions League."

Perez does not take well to perceived slights and Pellegrini's decision to pick Gonzalo Higuain over expensive recruit Benzema as his first-choice striker did not go down well. Then came that Alcorcon defeat, one of the most embarrassing in Real's history, and sure enough Pellegrini became increasingly isolated and exposed, wishes seldom granted, his authority undermined.

With Pellegrini's fate sealed almost the moment he took the job, defeat by Lyon in the Champions League round of 16 - a stage of the competition Real had exited in each of the six previous seasons - merely hastened the moves to bring in Mourinho.

"Pellegrini is not a winner," Perez reportedly told board members, and yet against this turbulent, poisonous backdrop, the Chilean was only narrowly pipped to the La Liga title by Guardiola's Barcelona.


The 96 points his team amassed were more than any Real coach had managed previously. His team also played some scintillating attacking football, smashing the 100-goal barrier in La Liga.

"I knew they were going to sack me since I arrived, since the August," Pellegrini said. "Not after Alcorcon or the Champions League elimination. I had no relationship with the board."

It would be easy, therefore, to conclude that Pellegrini will be fuelled as much by a personal vendetta tonight as his desire to reach the Champions League final but, for the most part, he has kept a lid on such emotions. For all that mud-slinging in Madrid, his dignity and self-control remained intact and, despite being a dead man walking, Pellegrini says he would not have stayed even if he had been given the chance to.

"I wouldn't have wanted to stay under those conditions," he said. "But I don't want people thinking that I am talking because I am still wounded. I don't want to appear bitter."

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