Manchester City vs Middlesbrough: Manuel Pellegrini refuses to blame defeat on Abu Dhabi flight but needs take-off at Chelsea

What is relevant is how this defeat will impact on a game that has long been billed as a title-decider

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There are many benefits to being a wholly owned  subsidiary of the government of Abu Dhabi – the players, the stadium, the sleek new training centre. There is, however, sometimes a price to be paid and, on Saturday, Manchester City paid it with their place in the FA Cup.

Part of City’s brief is to fly the flag for Abu Dhabi, but returning from the Gulf to face a powerful and extremely accomplished Middlesbrough side 19 hours after landing back in Manchester was cutting things too fine. Had this been a Champions League game, City would have been required to be in the host country a full 24 hours before kick-off.

Perhaps Boro would have knocked City out on their own ground anyway, just as Wigan did in last year’s quarter-final. However, standing in the corridors of the stadium named after the airline that made the travel arrangements, Manuel Pellegrini confessed that it did not look good.

The City manager did not, however, concede that the 2-0 defeat was attributable to the seven-hour flight – though he did hesitate when asked if he would have done the same if the opponents had been Chelsea, as they will be on Saturday evening.

“Of course, I understand how it looks,” Pellegrini said. “Everyone can have their own opinion. I don’t think it was the reason we lost but I will accept all opinions.

“It was not a game against Chelsea and I don’t want to say [whether I would have done the same thing] because you are asking me something that is not relevant.” 

What is relevant is how this defeat will impact on a game that has long been billed as a title-decider. Chelsea’s defeat at home to Bradford City was the more jaw-dropping but arguably City’s exit will hit them harder. Jose Mourinho made nine changes to his regular Chelsea side while Pellegrini’s was virtually his first-choice team.

If City are to be at full strength at Stamford Bridge, there needs to be another defeat and another long flight. On Wednesday, Ivory Coast could be eliminated from the African Cup of Nations if they lose to Cameroon. It is a similar distance from Equatorial Guinea to Manchester as it is from Abu Dhabi and it might be possible for Yaya Touré and Wilfried Bony to face Chelsea if they flew direct to Heathrow but, logically, it would not be worth the risk.

Pellegrini has already conceded that some of his key footballers – Sergio Aguero, Vincent Kompany and Edin Dzeko – could not be considered fully match fit. If they are to win and remain in the title race, he will have to go with what he has.

As a man who won three European Cups as a player at Real Madrid and also coached under Mourinho at the  Bernabeu, Middlesbrough’s manager Aitor Karanka knows precisely how to win.

Saturday’s triumph was an almost textbook example of how to overcome superior resources. But for their goalkeeper, the previously out-of-form and out-of-favour Tomas Mejias, Boro would have lost before the interval but as the game wore on their counter-attacks became ever more lethal.

Patrick Bamford, who scored the first, is on Teesside on loan from Chelsea and, in the striker’s eyes, Karanka and Mourinho are men hewn from the same rock.

“Their training is very similar and the big thing is that desire to win,” Bamford said. “You could see that here – the passion, the attention to every detail is there.

“[Karanka] doesn’t miss a thing and he is very rigorous with his approach to every game,” he added. “Even if we were facing a lower-league team, it would have been the same approach. It’s all about winning.”