There was a famous face in the crowd at Villarreal’s home game last weekend. Manuel Pellegrini had come to watch his old club. It was a promotion six-pointer against Girona and the supporters stood to applaud when their former coach appeared to take his seat next to his one-time President and still close friend Fernando Roig. Villarreal won 4-1.
Tomorrow, Malaga’s La Rosaleda stadium will also rise to salute the soon to be appointed Manchester City coach as he takes charge of his last home game. “It will be emotional,” says Malaga goalkeeper Willy Caballero.
There is a reason why the two sets of supporters hold the 59-year-old Chilean coach in such high esteem – he almost took them to a European Cup final.
Twice Pellegrini persuaded his charges that they were “in it to win it” despite being competition novices.
“He told us that we weren’t there to just participate; we were there to win it,” says Caballero, who admits that must have sounded a bit far-fetched as they stumbled into the group stage having just sold Santi Cazorla, their best player.
“People thought we were there to enjoy the group matches and then get back to the business of the league but we won the group and ended up being just minutes from making it into the semi-final.”
Asked for the best moment of this incredible season, Caballero says “the away trips” instead of picking out one game in the run which saw them beat Porto and so nearly tonight’s Champions League finalists Borussia Dortmund.
“I will never forget the trips to places like Milan, the atmosphere among the players,” he says. “We had a mixed group – some who had never played at that level before and others who had – but there was a feeling that we were all in it together.”
It is the kind of togetherness that Manchester City’s chief executive Ferran Soriano saw lacking in the club under Roberto Mancini. It might be harder to forge in Manchester than it was in Malaga, although for all their riches City, as a club, are as lacking in Champions League experience as two of Pellegrini’s former clubs.
Caballero says Pellegrini did not have to look too far to find something to inspire his Malaga players – his former club had blazed the trail. “In many ways Villarreal were the perfect role model for us,” he says. “If they could do it, then so could we.”
Villarreal qualified for the Champions League in Pellegrini’s first year, 2005. “Many of us had not played the tournament before and we were not exactly led into the shallow end,” says then right-back Javi Venta, now back at the club to play out his career.
They drew the one team that President Roig had said publicly before the draw they did not want – David Moyes’s Everton. “Despite that, Pellegrini convinced us that playing an English team suited us perfectly,” says Venta. “He convinces his players because he is convinced himself.”
Pellegrini’s impact was also felt off the pitch, where he changed the club’s bonus system. What was previously split 24 ways for each player was to be split 25 ways, with the 25th part to be divided between all remaining club employees.
“Everyone from the groundsman to the president counts. You share so many hours with these people, you should share the rewards,” adds Venta, who says the players bought into the manager’s ideas.
It was not all peace and love at Villarreal but club insiders say that when the brilliant Juan Roman Riquelme rebelled and delivered a “me or the manager” ultimatum the club backed Pellegrini over the star player in a heartbeat.
Back when Villarreal were a match for Barcelona, Txiki Begiristain, now Manchester City’s director of football, held that role at the Nou Camp. He noted how the club down the east coast of Spain were Barça’s greatest competition in terms of bringing youngsters through.
Players such as Cazorla came out of the youth system and were nurtured by Pellegrini into Champions League performers.
“I took Cazorla and put him in the first team but by his second season you could see that he was still struggling so I sent him out on loan,” the coach says. “He came back ready. Not every player needs that loan move. But if a player needs to mature elsewhere then there is nothing wrong with that.”
Cazorla came back from a season at Recreativo ready to take the reins at Villarreal and Pellegrini might have taken him to Real Madrid if the club had not been so obsessed with buying Kaka and paying him €10m (£8.5m) a season. The player eventually moved to Malaga, where he worked with Pellegrini until his sale to Arsenal.
Under Arsène Wenger he has now been reunited with another former Malaga team-mate, Nacho Monreal, who cannot speak highly enough of Pellegrini.
“He is the best coach I have had. He is the one I learned the most from. He knows everything there is to know about the game and it is sad what is happening to the club [Malaga] because he and the players deserve better,” Monreal told the Spanish sports paper Diario AS.
Monreal needed to improve his attacking game at Malaga. “The full-backs have to be very attacking, with the wingers going inside and leaving the flanks free,” Venta explained.
That preference for “false” wingers was never clearer than when Pellegrini sold orthodox outside right Antonio Valencia to Wigan Athletic from Villarreal. “I don’t want wingers but I want players on the wings. I want forwards and full-backs that can occupy the flanks at the right time but I don’t want someone standing out on the touchline waiting to receive the ball so they can take the full-back on,” he said in an extensive interview he gave on taking over at Real Madrid.
He only lasted a season at Spain’s biggest club and it is that failure that will most make Manchester City supporters doubt their new manager. His relaxed demeanour was often mistaken for a lack of intensity. Not that he hadn’t warned them what to expect.
“I give instruction from the touchline, but I am not a clown,” he said. “I also know that players don’t listen too much during the game, not even at half-time. As a coach you win the game through the week on the training ground not during the 90 minutes.”
In many ways Manchester City’s kingmakers have chosen the anti-Mancini. A man who stays calm and who believes togetherness, not the spark of conflict, brings the best out of a squad.
One thing they will hope he does share with his predecessor is popularity among the support. It may take time but if the reception he got last weekend at Villarreal and the raucous send-off he will get tomorrow are any indication it will come in the end.Reuse content