Arsenal-Manchester City Preview
Classy, cool and composed, almost all of Manuel Pellegrini's legacy at Manchester City will be remembered positively with a Premier League title, two League Cup trophies and the furthest progress in the Champions League in club history to his credit.
His last chapter over their final two matches will be to secure a top-four finish for successor Pep Guardiola, and that starts Sunday with a crunch encounter versus Arsenal that also serves as his final home game at the Etihad Stadium.
Pellegrini's bid to lift Europe's most prestigious club trophy ended Wednesday with a 1-0 loss at Real Madrid, which was also the aggregate of the two-legged tie. Manchester City failed to find an equaliser over the final 70 minutes after Fernando was credited with an own goal following his deflection of a strike by Gareth Bale.
Star striker Sergio Aguero was starved of service by Real's defence and got little help from Yaya Toure, Kevin de Bruyne and Jesus Navas. Pellegrini was also hamstrung after defender and captain Vincent Kompany's wonky calf again flared up, forcing his exit on 10 minutes.
''I am disappointed because I think that was a very close game,'' Pellegrini said. ''We didn't deserve to lose, Madrid was lucky with its goal, when the ball was deflected. I don't think any of the teams deserved to win. There was a lot of work by both sides in the two games, but not a lot of creativity.''
With the chance for continental glory gone, the target for Manchester City (19-7-10) is to give the incoming Guardiola the immediate chance to match or exceed Pellegrini's run by claiming a top-four spot. And that's far from given with the Citizens, who trail Arsenal (19-10-7) by three points for third place and are attempting to fend off Manchester United and West Ham United.
Those teams trail City by four and five points, respectively, and if a winner emerges from their contest Wednesday at Upton Park, they would represent the last threat to that Champions League spot.
Sunday's task is made harder since Pellegrini will be without four first-team regulars in Kompany, David Silva, Aleksandar Kolarov and Pablo Zabaleta. That's on top of keeping his usual calm demeanour ahead of his farewell match at the Etihad.
"I will have emotions on Sunday but I prefer not to show them in an external way," he said at his Friday news conference. "It's a special game because we finish here at home after three intensive years. We've always received support of the fans, so we're really happy with them.
"For me, the second season was the worst - if we can finish in third in this third season it wouldn't be extraordinary but still a good season."
His counterpart Arsene Wenger would be more than happy to agree with this sentiment - if he weren't on track for a third- or fourth-place finish for the 11th consecutive year with the Gunners. While the fan unrest during last weekend's 1-0 victory over Norwich City at the Emirates Stadium failed to materialise into anything substantial during the 12th and 78th minutes, the goal by substitute Danny Welbeck just shy of the hour showed Wenger still has some coaching chops after the crowd voiced its displeasure with starlet Alex Iwobi making way for Welbeck three minutes prior.
The Frenchman has made finishing third a priority, and with good reason given this summer's international tournaments both in Europe and North America with the Copa America. Direct entry into Champions League group play is a shiny carrot providing plenty of incentive.
"Our target now is to secure a position in the Champions League next year. If possible, to get second place or at least secure third place," Wenger told the team's official website. "On Sunday we can achieve that. We still have two games, and if we win those two games we will be all right.
"There's a European Championship and there's a Copa America. To get our players back, we made a schedule. It's absolutely very difficult because the European Championship finishes on July 10. If you think that you have to give at least three to four weeks holiday to the players who go to the end (of the tournament), that means they come back at the beginning of August."
While Arsenal are usually the team associated with dominating possession and free-flowing football - though sometimes with little end product in the way of goals - they won the reverse fixture 2-1 despite letting Manchester City boss the game. The Citizens had 58 percent of the possession, outshot the Gunners 20-8 and completed twice as many passes (585-262), but were unable to unlock Arsenal's defence until Yaya Toure scored in the 82nd minute.
It's a strategy Pellegrini expects Wenger to use again Sunday.
"Maybe Arsene played the way he plays in the last two games against us," he mused. "They let us have possession and they defended. I expect us to recover our attacking potential, which was our problem against Real Madrid. I hope that on Sunday we can continue being a scoring team."
Mesut Ozil was Arsenal's catalyst in that victory, setting up first-half goals by Theo Walcott and Olivier Giroud. The Germany international, though, has notched just three of his Premier League-leading 18 assists in 18 league contests since.
Arsenal are unbeaten in their last four (2-2-0) versus Manchester City since a 6-3 defeat at the Etihad on Dec. 14, 2013.