Manuel Pellegrini may want to pack a calculator along with his diary for Manchester City’s trip to Chelsea, because if the Chilean is to pass on the managerial baton to Pep Guardiola with a silver-plated legacy this summer, he must master the numbers game which now threatens to ruin his team’s pursuit of greatness.
Pellegrini’s selection for Sunday's FA Cup fifth round tie at Stamford Bridge, which kicks off less than 76 hours before a Champions League round-of-16 first leg against Dynamo Kiev in the Ukrainian capital, will give more than a nod to the intensifying demands on his players.In simple terms, City face four games in four competitions, over the space of 11 days, which will define their season.
Win them all, and Sunday's trip to London could provide the spark which ignites a run of 27 games in 98 days leading all the way to the Champions League final in Milan on 28 May. But the flip side is a nightmare scenario of defeat at Chelsea, failure to win against Liverpool in the Capital One Cup final a week on Sunday at Wembley, followed by a potentially pivotal Premier League fixture at Anfield three days later.
If the worst comes to the worst, the Champions League second leg against Kiev on 15 March could be the last-chance saloon for Pellegrini and his players, just as Guardiola prepares to put the final touches to his plans for a City revolution.
For the first time since taking charge at City in the summer of 2013, Pellegrini will unashamedly name a weakened team when he pins his starting XI on the tactics board in the visitors’ dressing room on Sunday.
The City manager has been criticised in the past for refusing to husband his resources in order to conserve energies for further down the line, but members of the club’s Elite Development Squad, which lost to Chelsea in last season’s FA Youth Cup final, will be handed the chance to prove their worth in place of rested senior players.
“Some may travel to Chelsea, so this is a really important time for all of them,” said Simon Davies, the head coach of City’s EDS. “It’s fantastic that they’re getting their opportunity. The manager is looking at them.
“If and when the opportunity comes they’ve got to take it because it’s one of the best teams in England and Europe and it’s not easy to get in.”
This was not supposed to happen, however. An FA Cup fifth-round tie against one of City’s most formidable domestic rivals should have been the occasion for Pellegrini’s best players to hammer out the message that they are serious about achieving an unprecedented haul of four major trophies in one season.
It is, after all, what the club’s Abu Dhabi hierarchy laid out as the objective, with chairman Khaldoon al Mubarak insisting in his post-season review last June that four trophies could be won with a squad of City’s strength and depth.
“We have a great nucleus here and we want to preserve this nucleus, but at the same time we want to go the next level,” Al Mubarak said then. “We want a squad that is able and has the capability and quality to win the Premier League, compete and win the Champions League, compete and be able to go all the way in two cup competitions in England.”
Having added Raheem Sterling, Kevin de Bruyne, Nicolas Otamendi and Fabian Delph to Pellegrini’s squad last summer, Al Mubarak reiterated the determination for City to pursue all four trophies when he spoke in the wake of the release of the club’s accounts in October.
“No team can expect to win every year, but competing to win in England’s domestic competitions and improving our performance in the Uefa Champions League are entirely reasonable goals for Manchester City,” he said. “It is right to have high expectations for this great club and the talented group of players chosen to represent it.”
But City are now caught in the classic trap which faces all those teams that approach the spring with hopes alive on all fronts. Barcelona may be able to coast along in Spain, with only a handful of testing domestic fixtures, while in Germany Bayern Munich are also capable of clean sweeps while in second gear.
But City are facing a wall assembled by too much football, the lack of a winter break and a fixture list which has suffered a concertina effect as a result of the Euro 2016 finals this summer.
If they are to succeed in the cups and revive their Premier League challenge – Pellegrini’s side are only six points adrift of leaders Leicester City with 12 games still to play – they could end up playing 66 games this season (not including replays), with a schedule of a game every three-and-a-half days if they remain alive in all competitions.
When Manchester United achieved the Treble in 1999, Sir Alex Ferguson’s team played a total of 63 games, having exited the League Cup in December, and Gary Neville admitted that the incessant workload eventually became a motivational factor.
“We relished the looming challenges,” Neville claimed in his autobiography, Red. “So much so that Jim Ryan, who had become first-team coach alongside Steve McClaren, started a countdown, as if he was counting the steps to greatness.
“‘Twelve to go, boys,’ he’d say when we came in after another victory. And then he would knock another one off and it would be 11 to go, then 10. Ten games in which to make history.”
City are yet to hit the final straight and already they are beginning to show worrying tell-tale signs of wear and tear.
Perhaps the greatest team in the club’s history is now facing its last big challenge before Guardiola arrives to call time on the City careers of such players as Yaya Touré, Samir Nasri, Martin Demichelis, Pablo Zabaleta and perhaps even David Silva.
But while 27 games is an awful lot to contemplate, City are one game from glory in the Capital One Cup, have a favourable Champions League draw and are still firmly in the title race.
Chelsea on Sunday could be the make-or-break moment, the game which either inspires a surge or signals the beginning of the end, for Pellegrini and many of his players.
So it is all down to the numbers and whether 27 into 98 can really make four.
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