Sport Soccer

Thursday 23 November 2017

Zabaleta: City will be better for past failures

Pellegrini's pedigree can ensure that, this time next year, Sky Blues will be Euro millionaires

Mark Ogden

In terms of lightening the mood and defusing any Champions League tension, it was certainly a novel idea to broadcast an episode of 'Only Fools and Horses' for Manchester City's players and staff on the club's charter flight to Prague yesterday morning.

Manuel Pellegrini, celebrating his 60th birthday ahead of City's third attempt at cracking the Champions League code, has yet to reveal the humourous side to his character since arriving from Malaga, so gags about 'plonkers' and 'dipsticks' were probably lost in translation some 36,000 feet over Lower Saxony.

However, following two seasons of failure in Europe's premier competition, City have endured much worse opprobrium than anything emanating from the Del Boy lexicon.

Having been hugely unfortunate to exit the competition at the group stage with 10 points and three victories in the 2011-12 campaign, Roberto Mancini's team claimed the unenviable distinction of being eliminated last season with the worst record of any English team to date when finishing winless and bottom of a group containing Real Madrid, Borussia Dortmund and Ajax.

Much of the criticism directed at City last season came directly from Mancini, with the Italian fomenting discord among his players by delivering withering post-match assessments of the likes of Joe Hart and Micah Richards.

So, with Mancini gone and replaced by Pellegrini, the atmosphere among the City players had been lifted before they even boarded the plane yesterday.

Nobody talks about the former manager nowadays, such was the depth of animosity towards him by the end of his reign, but as City prepare to face Czech champions Viktoria Plzen in the Doosan Arena tonight, there is a sense of this being the time to put an end to the club being a Champions League laughing stock.

"I think this is another chance for this club, this team to do better," defender Pablo Zabaleta said.

"What happened in the last two years in the Champions League has helped us to learn about it and now we will hopefully be better for it.

"It's not just that we have been in tough groups but if you compare this group to the last two years, then maybe this is slightly better for us. We believe in this team and now we have another chance... we have a great chance to qualify for the knockout stages."

Having turned Villarreal into Champions League regulars, and semi-finalists in 2006, Pellegrini has a pedigree in the competition which Mancini failed to acquire.

Players were confused by Mancini's tactics and his continual changing of personnel and formation at the back: four defenders one week, three the next. In contrast, Pellegrini's European CV has earned the respect of the City dressing room.

"Pellegrini is a manager with good experience of the Champions League," Zabaleta said. "He did well with Villarreal and Malaga, but now it's a different challenge for him with a new team and we believe he can do well.

"We know about the pressure to win trophies this season, but that's why we play for this club. We've got new players, a new manager, but I am sure we will do well."

Succeeding in the Champions League is a central pillar of the challenge handed to Pellegrini by City chief executive Ferran Soriano this summer.

Four games into the Premier League season, it is clear the Chilean has yet to fully implement his blueprint, with the 0-0 draw at Stoke City on Saturday hardly suggesting City are on course to take Europe by storm.

However, after injecting the pace of Jesus Navas and energy of Fernandinho into the team, Pellegrini has fixed two of the failings of last season. Defensively there remain concerns, but the coach insists the time has come to look forward rather than reflect on disappointments.

"I think we should forget that Manchester City didn't qualify for the next round in the last two seasons," Pellegrini said.

"It has been three years that the club hasn't done well in Europe, and I think that if we want to qualify, we have to respect Viktoria Plzen, CSKA Moscow and Bayern Munich the same way.

"It would be a big mistake to think that a team with less history in Europe would be easier to play.

"The most important aspect is to make the players feel they have the capacity, and the confidence, to compete against teams at the same level. I think this has helped the players and let them feel that they have their qualities as well."

With Plzen the home of Skoda, however, the last thing Pellegrini and City can afford is another stalled start ahead of the more demanding fixtures against Bayern and CSKA. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Viktoria Plzen v Manchester City

Live, Sky Sports 2, 7.45

Irish Independent

Promoted Links

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Promoted Links

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport