LONDON:  The cartridge has been loaded, aim has been taken, the finger is on the trigger. The only question appears to be ‘when’ not ‘if’ Manuel Pellegrini is to be fired as manager of Manchester City.

Next week might be too soon even if the fading Premier League champions suffer an embarrassing thrashing by resurgent neighbours United at Old Trafford tomorrow afternoon; there is still a season to complete and a Champions League qualifying spot to be secured.

However . . . City’s directors are building a worldwide empire with the financial power of their Abu Dhabi owners. But the value of the United States and Australian subsidiaries slither if the flagship team, City, are not collecting the titles and trophies to maximize on their television and sponsor potential.

Last season, under the Chilean engineer, City progressed. They reached the Champions League second round and won the Premier League and League Cup. But they needed to push on. Instead they have fallen back.

The FA Cup and League Cup are lost and gone; their Champions League campaign ended at the same stage against the same opponents (Barcelona); and now the Premier League title is effectively, if not mathematically, behind them.

England goalkeeper Joe Hart is the only City player to have progressed and improved. The other key men have regressed. Skipper Vincent Kompany has made too many costly mistakes; Yaya Toure is playing like a man distracted by future assignments; and Sergio Aguero always performs, for all his magnificent talent, as if in fear of yet another niggling injury.

Monday’s defeat by Crystal Palace in south London was close to the final straw. It was City’s fifth defeat in their last seven games in all competitions and left them languishing in fourth place, nine points adrift of leaders Chelsea. Arsenal and United have overtaken them.

Pellegrini’s calm approach was perfect to stabilise City after the headline-busting regime of Roberto Mancini. But the secret of progression has appeared beyond him. Pellegrini has chopped and changed too many players and systems too often and confidence has suffered.

Too many of his own signings have not justified his faith and their high-cost fees and wages. Eliaquim Mangala in defence, Fernando in midfield and Stevan Jovetic in attack have brought nothing except uncertainty. But it is unfair to blame only the defenders.

City have conceded 30 goals in their 31 games, only one more than at the same stage last season. But they have scored ‘only’ 63 goals compared with last term’s 84.

Speculation has already begun about a new manager. Jurgen Klopp is no longer flavour of the month after Dortmund’s spectacular fall from grace in the Bundesliga; Diego Simeone has siged a contract extension at Atletico de Madrid; Ajax’s Frank De Boer has never manage beyond Holland; and Carlo Ancelotti’s future is uncertain while Real Madrid’s defence of the Champions League remains alive.

The identification of a new man would need to be made sooner rather than later. The experience of United – with David Moyes and then Louis Van Gaal – has demonstrated that a mid-summer appointment means losing a year in terms of transfer strategy.

City need new blood. Martin Demichelis is 34, Pablo Zabaleta 30, Gael Clichy 29, Toure 31, Fernandinho and David Silva and Edin Dzeko all 29 – and there are no signs of City’s academy producing any home-grown gems in the immediate future.

Not only new managers but new players need time. Ander Herrera is such a case at United. The 25-year-old Basque had been identified by Moyes and then, finally, signed by Van Gaal. Initially he struggled to adapt to Van Gaal’s demands. But he was not alone.

The breakthrough, for Herrera, was a 3:0 win over Hull at the end of November. He provided one assist for Robin Van Persie and was voted man of the match. More assists followed including, crucially, one for Juan Mata in a 2-1 win over Liverpool. Next time out Herrera scored twice – for the first time in his senior career – against Aston Villa last weekend.

He works hard and tidily, he makes himself available to team-mates under pressure, he scores goals and his form in consistent.

Everything, in one player, which City lack in their team.