Viktoria Plzen v Manchester City: No time for pleasantries as Manuel Pellegrini faces City's Champions League identity crisis
The Sky Blues take on the Czech champions
The birthday congratulations came thick and fast for Manuel Pellegrini at his press conference last night, but he is not generally predisposed for any of that kind of small talk.
You would not have put it past his predecessor, Roberto Mancini, to have a tray of prosciutto on hand for such an occasion, but the Chilean was turning 60 with Manchester City’s Holy Grail quest to embark upon. This is a serious business.
City have vanished in Europe so completely in the past that the Champions League is beginning to feel like a millstone.
Though Pellegrini’s captain, Vincent Kompany, is in line tonight to return from the groin strain that has kept him out of action for a month, the manager seems to feel one of Europe’s most lavishly assembled squads have a psychological Rubicon to cross.
“It has been three years now that the club hasn’t done well in Europe, but I think we should forget Manchester City didn’t qualify for the next round in the last two editions and before that only reached the Europa League,” he said. “The most important aspect is to make the players feel they have the capacity, and the confidence, to compete at this level.”
That was some statement, given the wealth of talent on offer within what on paper is the strongest squad in the Premier League.
But City players never knew what the next journey across Europe might bring with Mancini, who ridiculed Joleon Lescott at Ajax, publicly censured Joe Hart in Madrid and pledged in Munich that Carlos Tevez would never play for the club again.
It is different with Pellegrini, who has been here many times before, making a group of players believe.
His Champions League exploits with Villarreal – semi-finalists in 2006 – and Malaga – quarter-finalists last season – have taught him to work the narrow margins between success and failure.
The boot is on the other foot for him now, because he is no longer the underdog. This campaign brings him immeasurably more pressure because of that.
It will be a huge surprise if we see the same hopelessness from his team which has come to characterise some of City’s adventures on the continent in the past.
“I have always repeated the same sentence to my players,” Pellegrini said. “If we are eliminated in the Champions League, it is because we faced a team that was superior to us and who played better than us. Not because they faced a bad team.”
An opener against Bayern Munich might actually have helped, restoring him to the underdog dynamic, though Pellegrini also knows about no-hopers and brings an insight into what the players of the unfancied Czech champions Viktoria Plzen will be feeling.
“One thing is sure,” he observed. “Last season, when the draw took place, Milan and Zenit St Petersburg were happy to be drawn against Malaga and felt they’d already qualified for the next round. But Malaga went on to win the group.”
City’s group D does look more navigable than City’s previous two, with CSKA Moscow also in the mix, though with the German champions at the Etihad next, a win here tonight feels like a necessity.
The openers of the two previous campaigns – defeat in Madrid and a draw at home to Napoli – have set the tone for City’s autumns. And the Czechs will be no pushovers, unbeaten since the start of July in their league, winning 12 of their 14 games and scoring 41 goals.
“I think with Manchester City we will try from the start to approach the Champions League with the right attitude, that it is very difficult to qualify,” the manager concluded. “The club has the experience to understand that.”
On his way out into the grim early evening rain squalls, Pellegrini could have turned into the brewery adjoining the stadium in this, the home of Pilsner. But he passed up any birthday celebrations.
There will be more solemn press conferences from this most serious of men before he has any celebrating to enjoy.
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