There are no excuses left for Manchester City. They do not need to win tonight, but they have to progress over two legs against Dynamo Kiev, or else the final chapter of the Manuel Pellegrini era will unravel further into farce.
This is City’s fifth season in the Champions League, and their third time in the last 16. In the last two seasons they have been outclassed by Barcelona at this stage. This time, as a reward for winning Group D, they have a more manageable opponent. If they do not reach the quarter-finals this year, when will they?
This would be a big game under normal circumstances, but City have brought even more pressure on themselves by their flippant discarding of the FA Cup fifth-round tie at Chelsea on Sunday afternoon. By reallocating all of his eggs into the Champions League basket, Pellegrini has made progress at this stage imperative following the second-string side’s 5-1 defeat at Stamford Bridge. If they fail, they will have lost half of their conceivably winnable trophies in one week.
Pellegrini, though, insisted at his press conference last night in Kiev’s Olympic Stadium that the two issues were unconnected.
“I don’t think one game is linked with the other one,” Pellegrini said, before launching another defence of Sunday’s raising of the white flag. “Unfortunately for us, we had to make a difficult decision against Chelsea. But it was the only clear decision we had in that moment.
“If we had a completely fit squad, then a lot more experienced players could have played that game. But that was not the case. We had just 13 players, so I think that it was our intention to continue in all of the competitions, but we couldn’t do that. We had to take a chance.”
Pellegrini hoped that with all of the rested players back in the team tonight, City can continue their steady European progress. “This game is absolutely different,” he said. “We are now thinking of trying to improve, because in the last two years we have arrived in the last 16 for the first time. Now we have won the group, and we will try to continue, knowing that we have a difficult game here tomorrow.”
Pablo Zabaleta, though, was more explicit about the connection between Sunday in west London and tonight. Dynamo have just returned from a winter break, and Zabaleta said that City’s mass rotation on Sunday will help them to compete against a well-rested team tonight.
“Dynamo Kiev have had a long break, time to have a good rest and recover some of the players who have been injured,” Zabaleta said. “We know that the Premier League is hard, we have been playing a lot of games in January and February. We are coming off so many games.
“I think, tomorrow, we will probably see a team-sheet with most of the players who were rested last weekend. Physically and mentally we have to be fresh for tomorrow, so we can play at 100 per cent.”
Zabaleta, unlike Pellegrini, has been at City for the entirety of their Champions League story. He played in their Champions League debut four and a half years ago, a 1-1 draw at home with Napoli. That was when Roberto Mancini was still in charge but many of those players are still here: Joe Hart, Vincent Kompany, Aleksandar Kolarov, David Silva, Yaya Touré and Sergio Aguero also all played.
Having been through so much together, Zabaleta hopes that this group have finally learnt their lessons, and can execute an intelligent, disciplined two-legged performance this time.
“Since we have been playing in this competition we have been playing against the best teams in Europe,” Zabaleta said. “Over the last four years we have been learning a lot about the way you have to play in those games. In the last two years we have gone out in this stage because we played against the best team in the world. Now this is another chance to make a step forward.”
City want to speed up their progress from here, which is why Pep Guardiola will replace Pellegrini at the end of this season. Some of these experienced players will be under pressure too, especially if they finish this season with no real upturn in form.
Zabaleta admitted that he knows “the club is making a lot of effort to bring in top players”, and said the group had a responsibility to start performing. “We know that we are 100 per cent focused on this, this is a big chance for us to go through to the next round,” he said.
There is nothing Pellegrini can do to save himself now, but it remains to be seen whether City’s senior players are committed to performing as they can over the final straight of the season. They have lost their last three games, gone out of the FA Cup and slipped away from the top of the Premier League title race. If they do in fact want to play for Pellegrini, and give him a positive ending to his three-year City tenure, now would be a good time to start showing it.
The Chilean was asked last night if his imminent departure was affecting results, but again denied it. “That is not a problem,” he said. “All the players from the start, they are just thinking in this season that we have important challenges from now until the end of the year.
“The best way is to be focused in every game. Now it is Champions League, after that we have the [Capital One Cup] final at Wembley on Sunday, and on Wednesday we will return to the Premier League. So it is very easy because we are focused on having a season that works this year.” If that is what City want, progress here is non-negotiable.