Manuel Pellegrini won’t admit it, but he has always been a superstitious coach. When he was at River Plate, his players always ate their pre-match dinner at La Cantina, a Buenos Aires restaurant owned by River director Antonio La Regina. Pellegrini’s one rule at dinner was that all cell phones be on mute or turned off. If anyone’s cell rang, he would be fined.
One night, before a big game, La Regina’s phone rang. It was embarrassing but Pellegrini told him to answer it. “You will be fined anyway,” he said. It was La Regina’s brother. River won the game and the following week, just as the players sat down to eat, Pellegrini took La Regina to one side and said, “Tell your brother to call while we are having dinner.” And so began a successful ritual: La Regina’s brother kept calling during dinner (and when he didn't, the director would text him to remind him), La Regina kept paying the fines, and River kept on winning.
At Manchester City, the routine is slightly changed: “I always have to call him before games,” said La Regina, “and if I don’t call him, he calls me and says, ‘Why didn’t you call me? Do you want me to lose the game?’”
Pellegrini will hope La Regina remembers to call on Saturday, ahead of City’s top-of-the-table fixture against leader Leicester City. Not only is the game crucial in the race for the Premier League title, but it will be Pellegrini’s first home game since the announcement earlier in the week that he will leave at the end of the season, with Pep Guardiola taking over.
Pellegrini handled the story with typical dignity and under-statement, admitting he knew one month ago and welcoming his successor to the club with good grace. It’s a running joke in the northwest that City press conferences are notable only for Pellegrini’s refusal to rise to any baits; a far cry from Louis van Gaal down the road. While most people expect that Guardiola will bring an upturn in glamor, tactics and potential for European success, Pellegrini has the edge when it comes to shutting down controversy.
Back in Chile, the announcement was met with outrage. How dare Guardiola replace its man–in the middle of the season as well!
“City are still alive in four competitions and yet they didn't take that into account,” wrote El Mercurio.
“He is being sacked even though his numbers put him among the most respectable in the history of the Premier League,” wrote La Cuarta.
“It’s also important to think about the how here too,” wrote Pablo Ortega in Chilean newspaper AS. “The how has been undoubtedly more important, as Pellegrini has introduced his own style of play in England, so different to the traditional English one. Pellegrini has been contra-cultural, as he stuck to his principles. You could say Pellegrini defied the English establishment, and did it well.”
El Libero ran a poll asking readers if City will improve next season. Here are the results:
City will play the same level: 57%
City will play better: 14%
City will play worse: 29%
Perhaps Guardiola’s CV has not yet reached that publication’s readership. The Spaniard’s main task will be to improve City’s Champions League record. So far it has never reached the last eight; ironically this season it has its best chance, with a tie against Dynamo Kiev coming at the end of the month.
The Chilean coach may have trained as an engineer when he was a bruising center half for Universidad de Chile (his nickname was Peligrosini, as ‘peligroso’ means ‘dangerous’ in Spanish) but his attitude to the game now, at least on and not off the pitch, is all about entertainment.
That comes from his mentor, Fernando Riera, who coached him for five years at Universidad de Chile.
“He did not think that it was just about the victory,” Pellegrini told Jotdown magazine. “I have the same philosophy. It’s problematic, and shows no respect for the public, to ignore that this is entertainment. I think football should be approached as a show from an ethical and stylistic perspective. So if to win, you have to bash someone on the head or I need to tell one of my players, ‘Go and knock out Messi so he never plays again,’ then I would rather not win.”
This attitude is in contrast to that of Jose Mourinho, who replaced him as Real Madrid coach and never missed the opportunity to put down Pellegrini since. The concept of "the public" is also one that has totally escaped Van Gaal, and leads to an intriguing possibility: Pellegrini wants to stay in Europe, might not get the Chelsea job, but what about Old Trafford? He ticks a lot of their boxes, although his City connections would appear to rule out a direct move. But compared to Mourinho, he would appear a more natural fit.
One thing is certain: he will not be joining his old friend Arturo Salah at the Chile FA. The new president, a former teammate of Pellegrini (they almost bought a club together in 2000), appointed Juan Antonio Pizzi as new Chile coach last week. Pellegrini plans to spend some more time coaching in Europe before ending his career back home.
He might have plenty of options: Chelsea and United are recruiting, and the likes of Atletico Madrid, Juventus or PSG might be in the market for a new boss soon. Beating Leicester City and winning the Premier League will improve his chances of landing a top job. Pellegrini just needs to make sure La Regina makes that call.