It was a risk the Manchester City manager Manuel Pellegrini knew he was taking. Fielding a significantly weakened side in the FA Cup fifth-round tie against Chelsea on Sunday effectively sacrificed the competition to ensure first-teamers are fully rested before Wednesday’s Champions League last-16 tie away against Dynamo Kyiv. If City gets a positive result there and then beats Liverpool in the League Cup final next Sunday it will probably be regarded as a price worth paying.
But that’s a huge if.
City has lost three in a row since the announcement that Pep Guardiola will replace Manuel Pellegrini at the end of the season–although it would be a misrepresentation to suggest that is the only or even the most significant problem. Momentum once lost is never easily regained and there is a real danger of City’s season collapsing.
Eight years ago, Arsenal stood five points clear at the top of the table at this stage. It fielded a weakened team in the FA Cup fifth round, lost 4-0 against Manchester United and never fully recovered. In the two months that followed, it won just one of eight league games and went out of the Champions League to Liverpool.
City faces a similar meltdown. The worst-case scenario for City is a heavy defeat in Kyiv followed by defeat in the League Cup final. In a week, three out of the four competitions City had hopes of winning would have gone–and it’s not as though its league position, six points off the top with 12 games to go, looks especially hopeful.
In the end, a 5-1 defeat to Chelsea perhaps looks worse than it was. Chelsea had plenty of chances to increase that lead in the second half, most notably Oscar’s missed penalty, but City’s youngsters competed well in the first half and will probably have benefited from the experience. But even that excuse hints at the real problem, which is that the side Pellegrini put out was never likely to trouble a resurgent Chelsea.
A stronger side, even if it wasn’t the strongest side, might at least have kept the tie alive and alleviated some of the pressure City now faces.
Was it really necessary to play five debutants at Stamford Bridge? This, after all, was just City’s second game in 15 days. The match against Dynamo is on Wednesday. It’s not ideal, but neither is two games in a little over 72 hours especially unusual. Barcelona and Arsenal both played on Saturday and will play each other on Tuesday. The explanation has been offered that Kyiv is a long journey, but it’s only a flight of around 3 hours and 15 minutes, a little more than an hour longer than the trip Barcelona will make to London.
Pellegrini spoke of his hand being forced by the injuries that have undermined his squad, and it’s true that he’s without Wilfried Bony, Kevin De Bruyne, Fabian Delph, Eliaquim Mangala, Samir Nasri, Jesus Navas and Bacary Sagna. But of those, only De Bruyne would probably make it into his strongest starting lineup. And sympathy, anyway, will be in short supply given City’s wealth; there aren’t many excuses if it cannot put together a squad able to fight on four fronts without resorting to effectively tossing a game by playing such an inexperienced squad.
After the defeat to Leicester two weekends ago, Pellegrini brusquely dismissed the suggestion that his side’s limp display was a result of the Guardiola announcement. In part that as because, whatever other failings he may have as a manager, he has never seized on the easy excuse. But it’s also because such a claim would be ridiculous. City hasn’t won two league games in a row since October.
The last 17 league games have yielded just 26 points; in most seasons that would in itself be enough to have ruled City out of the title race.
The problems are not easily soluble. The lack of leadership when Vincent Kompany is missing is astonishing. Toure’s decline has been painful to watch. Sergio Aguero remains by some distance City’s best striker and yet such is his declining contribution to overall play that it has won only 54% of games when he has played as opposed to 71% when he has not.
This is a squad that is aging and has looking increasingly unmotivated. Last season after 26 games it had 55 points, in 2013-14 57, in 2012-13 53, in 2011-12 63. This season it has 47. Given the quality in the squad, given the investment in the summer in De Bruyne and Raheem Sterling, both of whom have settled relatively well, that is inexcusable.
Manchester United’s struggles have helped deflect attention, and the prospect of Guardiola’s arrival means there is a putative solution to almost any problem that can be raised. But nobody should think a change of manager will be a panacea or that United is the only club in Manchester with serious structural questions to answer.
Perhaps City will find resilience and by this time next week it will have bagged a first trophy of the season with a first-ever appearance in the Champions League quarterfinal all but secured. But nothing that’s happened in the last two weeks gives cause of optimism.