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Just why do Manchester City want Manuel Pellegrini?

He has never won a major trophy but is still seen by many as one of game's top coaches

It is a measure of how highly Manuel Pellegrini is regarded in Spain that after moving to Real Madrid in 2009, failing to win a trophy with the most expensively assembled squad in La Liga's history, and being sacked at the end of his first season, he managed to emerge with his reputation not just intact but, in the eyes of many, enhanced.

He has now spent nine seasons in Spain without a major title and yet the over-riding view of him – evidently shared by Manchester City director of football, Txiki Begiristain – is that he is a champion in waiting; a coach who has dramatically over-achieved at Villarreal and Malaga, and who only under-achieved at Real Madrid because of extremely mitigating circumstances.

Pellegrini is an oddity – a 59-year-old coach with potential – long in the tooth but with his best days ahead of him. As a player he was a commanding central defender during 13 years spent at Universidad Catolica in his home city of Santiago de Chile.

He tells the story of how he decided to retire one day in 1986 when, aged 32, he was out-jumped by a young opposing striker who unbeknown to him was Ivan Zamorano, who would go on to be one of Chile's finest players. "Had I known, I might not have quit so soon", he says with the dry humour that takes the edge off a straight-bat personality.

Having studied civil engineering, he briefly returned to it after his playing career just as large parts of his country needed rebuilding following the 1985 earthquake. The "Engineer" moniker stayed with him as he began building teams, although in the early days it was anything but a compliment. The insinuation was that with his academic air and his full life outside football, he lacked the necessary passion to succeed.

Some saw the preference for reading a book, making trips back to Chile to visit his family or playing tennis instead of studying would-be opponents, as a lack of intensity. But he sees it as maintaining the healthy balance that makes him a better manager inside the football bubble.

In five years at Villarreal the philosophy served him well as he took a club from a town with a population of just 45,000 to the Champions League semi-finals in 2006.

He was the last coach to split the big two in Spain, finishing above Barcelona and behind Real Madrid in the title race – something that earned him a move to Madrid in 2009. The club had just spent ¤250m (£210m) on Karim Benzema, Kaka, Xabi Alonso and Cristiano Ronaldo. So why, with such riches at his disposal, was he out the door in just 12 months?

His reign had the misfortune to coincide with Pep Guardiola's second season at Barcelona, meaning that although he broke the then points record at Real Madrid, the team still finished second. He was ignored when he insisted the club should not sell Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder – both went on to play in that season's Champions League final for Bayern Munich and Inter Milan respectively, while Madrid lost at the last-16 stage to Lyon.

And he was also saddled with Raul and Guti, two club heavyweights long since more influential politically off the pitch than in a football sense on it – Jose Mourinho made sure both left before he took over the following season. There was an embarrassing Spanish Cup exit, beaten 4-0 by third division side Alcorcon, and he had to make do without Ronaldo for six weeks when an ankle injury interrupted his first season at the club.

He is not a lucky coach – from Juan Roman Riquelme's missed penalty for Villareal in the Champions League semi-final against Arsenal in 2006, through to this year's Malaga heartbreak against Borussia Dortmund.

At Malaga he also seems to have found football's only penny-pinching Qatari sheik. Having seen Pellegrini get Malaga into the Champions League for the first time, Abdullah al-Thani spent this season asset stripping the team, creating a chaos his manager has navigated with all the cool determination that has characterised his career. "He gets the best out of players but without being an over-bearing presence" says Quique Alvarez, who captained that Villarreal Champions League semi-final side.

In a rousing speech to his players at the start of the season Pellegrini persuaded them that with a fine run in the Champions League they could even turn the club's fortunes around. Had its fate rested on competition prize money and not on the owner's whim, that would have come to pass. He has fought the players' corner as wages have gone unpaid, and has fostered a togetherness in adversity.

Begiristain was Barcelona's Sporting Director in 2008 when Pellegrini's Villarreal finished above them in the League. If the kingmaker crowns the Engineer it will be because he believes Pellegrini's luck is about to change, and that Manchester City will be the place where his undoubted ability starts producing trophies.

Manuel Pellegrini

Age 59, born in Santiago, Chile

Teams managed Took first managerial role in 1988 and has taken charge of 10 teams (plus Chile's U20 side in 1991), including Villarreal (2004-2009), Real Madrid (2009-10) and currently Malaga

Honours League titles in Ecuador and Argentina. The Intertoto Cup with Villarreal in 2004 is the only trophy he has won in a total of nine years coaching in Spain