Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2: Predictable Manuel Pellegrini fails to bend his rules once again

Manchester City's hopes of progression are hanging by a thread

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The owners of Manchester City have been so exemplary – thoughtful, watchful and customer-facing – that it is easy to assume their aims are their supporters’ aims. There were some puzzled looks at the Match of the Day 2 studios at the weekend when a friend of Noel Gallagher, the programme’s excellent guest, kept talking about everything “Karl” would do. He was talking about the club’s Abu Dhabi chairman, ‘Karl-doon’ (Khaldoon) al Mubarak, it eventually transpired.

But the Abu Dhabi outlook does not make Mubarak one of their own, if we take it as read that the City faithful are far more obsessed with continually winning the Premier League than success in the Champions League – because they are yet to consider the domestic title a given. The men from the Persian Gulf know that to become a global force – the kind of team whose exploits no longer trail in way behind Manchester United and Liverpool in terms of social media impact and whose kits parade the Etihad brand in every corner of the earth – they need to be able to walk in the company of Barcelona. The Premier League – all £5.1bn of it – actually has its limitations.

That is why, in the light of Tuesday night’s 2-1 defeat to Barcelona, it is quite reasonable to air some very substantial reservations about Manuel Pellegrini –  title-winning manager though he might have been last year, in a season when the only competition was a Liverpool side which shipped 50 league goals. City’s hopes of global recognition were on the line against Barça, which is why it was shocking to see a gameplan so bereft of intelligence in how to deal with the side put in front of them. Wouldn’t the fine details of the challenge have kept Pellegrini awake into the small hours? It just did not look that way.

The decision to start with a 4-4-2 system – which provoked a tide of horror on social media when things began going wrong – was actually not as shocking as it seemed, given that the real intelligence lies in changing that structure when its exponent is not in possession. When Barcelona are on the ball, it has to become 4-5-1, with one of the two strikers dropping to sit on Sergio Busquets, preventing him creating from deep, while the two wingers take up narrower positions. None of this happened. Edin Dzeko briefly looked half interested in  dropping back a little, but it didn’t last.

And yet, every player knows you have to compress the space in that central midfield pressure cooker. “I played Barcelona many times and even if you played five in the middle I can assure you that you always feel a player short because they know how to move, how to keep the ball,” Gaël Clichy said after the defeat. “Even if you press well they manage to come out. It’s nothing to do with the two strikers, or four in midfield, because I have played against Barcelona over six years and many times with four in midfield, five in midfield, and the striker coming back so it’s like you have no striker up front. And you still feel that you are playing under numbers.”

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Did not Pellegrini, who has recorded 13 defeats and two draws in his last 15 matches against Barcelona, expect this and encompass it in his preparations? Joe Hart’s description of what happened in Tuesday’s desperate first half gave the impression that the side were nowhere near equipped for the task in hand. “We panicked a bit when the press got beat and we backed off which wasn’t the way we wanted,” he said – a fairly extraordinary admission, given the significance of the occasion.

The goalkeeper’s comments bore out the impression that Pellegrini always gives: that it is his own team’s gameplan that matters and not the opposition. They’ll do it their way. His disinclination to go for a five-man midfield in Moscow last autumn– to select at random another bad European night – explained why a very average CSKA Moscow, currently seven points off the top of the Russian Premier League, overwhelmed City.

Rafael Benitez, an exponent of how to win ties like Tuesday’s, has said European knockout competition involves “the management of 180 minutes; the tactical preparation needed to overcome opponents expected to beat us” – and he should know, as he has won the thing. Take a look again at the Liverpool side who beat Milan in the Champions League final in 2005, which included Djimi Traoré, Harry Kewell and Milan Baros. “We had to make the best use of what we had,” is how Benitez has summed up that night in Istanbul.

 

Pellegrini parades the same high-mindedness on these issues as Arsène Wenger, another to fail to overcome Barcelona. Perhaps his disinclination to let the opposition affect the course of things explains why City did not put in a single cross from open play in the first half on Tuesday, despite having a 6ft 4in striker – Dzeko – in the starting line-up against Javier Mascherano and Gerard Pique, who are not dominant in the air. Astonishing.

Clichy admitted in the aftermath of the defeat that “to improve is to go further in the Champions League” and despite suggesting this should be a longer-term ambition because sides like Barcelona “have been built for several years, 20, 30, 40 years, and this is only the sixth season for us,” he acknowledged the owners have a different time-frame. “The owner wants to improve quickly so we have to improve quickly,” he said.

The club have moved on from the open civil war of the Roberto Mancini era and the time has come to ask if harmony and an holistic outlook are enough to be happy with. When the sun rose on another day and another substantial disappointment on Wednesday, it was hard to conjure the image of Pellegrini being the man with the plan and the punch to take this team to the high ground and keep the company of the greats.

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