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Almost all footballing lives end in failure–that’s why they end, as a rule. But as Manuel Pellegrini nears the exit at Manchester City, he has been presented with a remarkable opportunity to leave with the sort of flourish that few can even dream of. It’s not just that he finds himself, implausibly, three games from winning the Champions League, but that to do so, and so make a point to those who have ousted him for Pep Guardiola, he must first beat Real Madrid, the club that sacked him despite a record points haul to make way for Jose Mourinho.
Guardiola, of course, has been here before. In January 2013, it was announced that he would take over as Bayern Munich manager that summer; four months later, Bayern won the treble under Jupp Heynckes. There’s a sense in which Guardiola’s reign at Bayern has never quite escaped what came immediately before, that for all the beauty of the football his side has at times produced, every trophy not won has become a rebuke, a slip from impossibly high standards. There’s an odd, slightly unfair, sense that despite two Bundesliga titles–with a third probably on its way–Guardiola needs Champions League success to validate his time at Bayern.
This, though, would be worse. City is a club that has been built on the Barcelona model. It has a former Barcelona CEO in Ferran Soriano and a former Barcelona sporting director in Txiki Begiristain. It wants the academy to be part of the fabric of the club and describes its approach as “holistic.”
It is a club that has been set up to be as much like Barcelona as possible for Guardiola to take over.
The key aim of that process, the way of vindicating all the preparation is to win the Champions League for the first time. For Guardiola to arrive with the Champions League trophy already in the cabinet would be like Sir Galahad taking his place in the Siege Perilous only to discover that there’s already a suspiciously grail-like object taking pride of place on the Round Table.
How realistic, though, is the thought of City winning the Champions League? There’s little doubting that it’s fourth favorite, lacking the swaggering individuals of Madrid, the brilliant movement of Bayern or the toughness and organization of Atletico, but vitally, it is there. And as Chelsea showed in 2012, once you’re in a semifinal extraordinary things can happen.
Perhaps most significantly, there have been signs at City of the same mood that engulfed Chelsea late in 2012, a sort of end-of-days defiance.
The widespread expectation is that this team will be broken up in the summer, that very few of what is an aging side can be guaranteed of their futures and, after months of drift, that sense of the imminence of the end seems to have stimulated renewed resolve.
It’s a little like the scene in the Lion in Winter–cited at least twice in The West Wing–when the princes Richard and Geoffrey in the dungeon think they hear their father approaching to kill them. Richard vows he will never offer his putative murdered the satisfaction of seeing him beg at which Geoffrey is scornful. “You chivalric fool...” he says, “as if the way one fell down mattered.” To which Richard replies, “When the fall is all there is, it matters.”
This season, otherwise, has been a failure for City. It has never consistently approached the sort of level of football this squad should have done. Last Saturday it completed consecutive wins in the Premier League for the first time since October. Its defending has often been shambolic, its attack lacking cutting edge. But slowly the disparate parts are coalescing.
City’s only two clean sheets in this season’s Champions League have come in its last two home games. Perhaps holding out Dynamo Kyiv in a game rendered a formality by City’s win in the away leg doesn’t mean a great deal, but shutting out a Paris Saint-Germain side that had picked Chelsea apart in the previous round does.
Significantly, both clean sheets have come without Yaya Toure starting. While he is still capable of moments of brilliance, the 32-year-old no longer has the stamina to make his forward surges and protect the back four, and seems to have struggled to adapt his game accordingly.
Fernandinho and Fernando may lack sparkle, but they offer greater protection than any pairing involving Toure.
That, in turn, makes the job of the center backs easier. Eliaquim Mangala and Nicolas Otamendi were combative rather than composed on Tuesday, but the return of Vincent Kompany after his latest calf injury should add a calming influence.
Kevin De Bruyne’s return from his knee injury has added incision. In a way it wasn’t a month ago, it’s at least possible to imagine City frustrating a Madrid side that is itself much improved in recent weeks, and stinging it on the break. The probability is still that Madrid will progress, but the potential at least is there for City to give Guardiola an awkward arrival and hand Pellegrini the perfect farewell.