For a manager about to give a batch of young players their first big chance today, Manuel Pellegrini didn’t exactly offer the greatest endorsement of what should be a big match, both on its own terms and for the future of Manchester City. His words were actually rather remarkable when asked if the FA Cup fifth-round tie with Chelsea is a “real game”.
“I think it’s not a real game, of course,” Pellegrini said. “I would not pay for the ticket. We told [the fans] one week ago that we are going to play with a young team. If the people want to continue going to the stadium, or Chelsea fans will enjoy that game, I don’t know.”
Pellegrini’s curmudgeonly attitude is an extension of City’s understandable frustration with fixture scheduling that sees them play an FA Cup tie three days before an awkward Champions League trip to Dynamo Kiev, but it’s still hard not to wonder whether he could show more public belief in his young players.
The other side of this anger is that academy graduates like Bersant Celina could experience the type of jubilation that Bertrand Traore (right) did in scoring his first goal for Chelsea last weekend, against Newcastle. “It’s a joy for him,” Hiddink said. “It’s beautiful.”
That felt like it had the potential to be a breakthrough moment, given how intent Chelsea are in finally producing another long-term youth graduate to succeed John Terry. Except, Hiddink immediately indicated there could be more waiting. “Putting one of the youngsters in, that depends on the demands of the FA Cup, but I don’t hesitate putting him in if needed.”
It is that immediate need, however, that so often imposes on longer-term plans regarding youth. This FA Cup match actually sums up so many of the problems that the modern elite have in bringing through homegrown players, especially since it is a meeting between two clubs who have been more concerned with that than anyone else in Europe. In the last year, leading executives from both City and Chelsea privately spoke at length to the Independent on Sunday about how much they want their own homegrown cores.
Putting their money where their mouths are, the two clubs have spent fortunes in making their academies the best in the game, as they try and underlay relatively new regimes with the type of identity that only a strong youth set-up can give.
Who could sign for Pep's Manchester City?
Who could sign for Pep's Manchester City?
1/8 Lionel Messi
The Argentinian wizard recently reiterated his desire to play for Barcelona, and only Barcelona, while he remains in Europe and said he would only leave for a club in his home country. His relationship with Guardiola has cooled in recent years but if any manager could convince him to switch clubs, surely it's Pep?
2/8 Robert Lewandowski
The Bayern Munich striker is apparently looking to escape the Allianz Arena and try a different domestic league while still in his prime. Real Madrid are sniffing around him but, if he doesn't fancy too much of a change, he could always rock up at the Etihad with his current boss in the summer.
3/8 Thomas Muller
The versatile forward recently signed a new contract with Bayern, probably in order to ward off the persistent advances of Manchester United. Muller never seemed against the idea of life in north-west England, however, and has been particularly effusive about Pep's style over the years. Could he be tempted?
4/8 Mario Gotze
The midfielder's contractual situation at Bayern needs resolving, with his current deal due to expire next season. If Gotze enters his final year without his future sorted, expect Guardiola's City to be one of many suitors.
5/8 Gerard Pique
One of the remaining survivors from Guardiola's Nou Camp reign. Manchester City may go into next season needing an overhaul in central defence, as Vincent Kompany is too injury-prone and questions remain over Eliaquim Mangala and Martin Demichelis. However, the defender says his love for Manchester United will stop him from ever playing for City. We'll see.
6/8 Thiago Alcantara
Manchester United came close to capturing the diminutive midfielder in 2013, only for him to plump for Bavaria and his old boss, Pep. He's upset the red half of the city by signing with Guardiola once, so why not again?
7/8 Sergio Busquets
Of all the players listed, perhaps the one that would come in and solve a long-standing problem at Manchester City. Both Fernando and Fernandinho have improved this term, but neither can hold a candle to the master of screening a back four. City are desperate for protection in that area, one of Pep's academy graduates at Barcelona would provide it.
8/8 Jerome Boateng
A man who knows Manchester City well. Since returning to the Bundesliga in 2011 after a single, disappointing season at Eastlands, Boateng has matured into one of the continent's best centre-halves. City could do with him now.
2015 Getty Images
Despite that, it is ironic that you can’t buy the readiness required to make the “most difficult step” - as Hiddink calls it – from youth to the full team. You can only put the conditions in place. The two clubs have done all that - apart from maybe the last condition.
With the modern perception of the FA Cup, this should be a perfect platform to give young players the chance to breathe.Pellegrini is complaining about having to play youth. Hiddink is effectively saying he cannot because the club’s priorities this season have changed - but all of this keeps undercutting those longer-term priorities.
For the last decade, Chelsea’s target has been to bring one academy player into the first team every two years. That has not happened once. “We’re not concerned,” one source says. “We are frustrated. It’s the dilemma.”
City are still “relaxed” rather than frustrated, given they are five years behind Chelsea in the process. Senior club figures told the Independent last week that they would expect it to take another three years for the academy to properly produce fruit.
The wonder is whether they’ll have the same view if, like Chelsea, they go through four successive FA Youth Cup winning teams without a senior player. The demands at the top level also mean it’s become commonplace to buy players , rather than allow young recruits to find their feet.
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