MANCHESTER: When Manuel Pellegrini was imported from Malaga in the summer of 2013 to replace the confrontational Roberto Mancini he was set a target by Manchester City chief executive Ferran Soriano of winning five trophies in five seasons and improving their record in European competition.
Last season Pellegrini guided City to victory in the Premier League and the League Cup but were halted in the Champions League second round by Barcelona.
This season, comparatively, City have slipped back rather than improved. They lost their grip on the League Cup last October (to Newcastle), they have been knocked out of the FA Cup (at home to second division Middlesbrough)and they are struggling to keep within sight of Premier leaders Chelsea. Once more, also, they are heading for a Champions League second round exit at the hands of Leo Messi & Co.
Under Mancini City won the FA Cup in 2011 and the league in 2012. His failure to win anything in 2013, plus his falling-out with several players, prompted the Italian’s departure. On this basis Pellegrini may also be looking at an early exit if there is no silverware in the cabinet by mid-May.
Pellegrini has no personal problems with his players who enjoy working for him and are comfortable with his decisions. His weakness, however, appears to be in terms of tactics at the highest level of the game, ie in Europe.
Thrashing Newcastle 5-0 last weekend appeared to lure Pellegrini into a belief that he could take on Barcelona with two strikers. In fact, predictably, that left City weakened in terms of numbers in midfield. Barcelona seized immediate advantage and scored the decisive goals which leave City staring elimination in the face.
Certainly City missed Yaya Toure but the club with the second-highest wage bill in Europe, whose owners have spent £500m on players in the last six years, were close to humiliation in front of their own fans.
City face a crucial test on Sunday when they visit resurgent Liverpool. Victory would lift them within two points of Chelsea, who are ‘absent’ at the League Cup Final. Defeat would prompt further questions for – and about – Pellegrini.
Lost in midfield
City lost the game against Barcelona, and almost certainly the tie, in the first half. Tactically Barcelona outnumbered City 5-4 in midfield and they capitalised to dominate possession in the opening quarter of an hour.
That not only took the sting out of City’s determination to make amends for last season’s failure but provided the foundation for the first goal in 16 minutes. Messi’s pass deflected off Vincent Kompany for Luis Suarez to mark his return to English pitches with the opening goal.
Messi also sparked the second goal. His pass cut Fernando pout of the game and provided the raiding Jordi Alba with the opportunity to split Kompany and Demichelis with an assist which Suarez again converted.
Neymar also tormented Pablo Zabaleta in the first half and Dani Alves hit the bar but the Brazilian and his team-mates relaxed after half-time.
City, shocked into life, stepped up their game after the interval. Edin Dzeko headed narrowly wide from a David Silva corner and Javier Mascherano blocked a shot from Samir Nasri before Gaël Clichy stole possession from Messi and crossed for Sergio Aguero to score.
However, just when City found some hope, they lost it again after Clichy was sent off for a second yellow card – a challenge on Alves after an earlier foul on Ivan Rakitic.
Then it was down to Messi against Joe Hart. The England goalkeeper pushed one Messi shot over the bar then dived to turn away his penalty in stoppage time.
** Juventus defeated German domestic strugglers Borussia Dortmund ‘only’ 2-1 in Tuesday’s other Champions League second round tie.