Manuel Pellegrini is not prone to looking beyond the horizon, preferring instead to focus on the challenge staring him in the face, but the Manchester City manager allowed his gaze to stray beyond his usual boundaries when asked about the prospect of leaving the Etihad Stadium with the European Cup in the trophy cabinet.
With last week’s quarter-final first-legs all ending with this week’s return fixtures finely balanced, the prospect of City overcoming Paris Saint-Germain and entering the semi-final draw on Friday without Barcelona, Real Madrid or Bayern Munich barring their route to the final is no longer as fanciful as it would have seemed just seven days ago.
Real, trailing 2-0 to Wolfsburg ahead of Tuesday's second leg in the Bernabeu, are the most vulnerable of Europe’s Champions League aristocrats, but a 1-0 defeat against Atletico Madrid in the Vicente Calderon on Wednesday will see Barcelona eliminated and Benfica host Bayern with only a 1-0 deficit from the Allianz Arena.
So a path may be opening up for City to progress all the way to the final in the San Siro on 28 May and Pellegrini insists that his team should not settle simply for a place in the last four this season. “I am thinking that if we arrive to the semi-final it will be a very important achievement, but we will not be happy just with that,” Pellegrini said. “We must play every game thinking that we are the best and that we can win. We want to arrive to the semi-final to try and win this competition.”
Whether City can plan for a semi-final draw without Barca, Real or Bayern remains to be seen and recent history suggests that at least one of Europe’s most stellar clubs will progress to the last four. Not since 2007, when eventual winners Milan joined Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester United in the semi-finals has that stage of the competition taken place without Barcelona, Real or Bayern, so it would a seismic moment for the triumvirate to crash out this week. And the prospect of a two-legged tie against Wolfsburg or Benfica – United’s path to the 2011 final was made much easier by a semi-final pairing against Schalke – would leave City favourites to make it to Milan.
Still, with or without the three front-runners for the competition, Pellegrini clams that City have no fear of their potential opponents if they can eliminate PSG tonight. “The most important thing is to have a focused mind to arrive to the semi-final,” Pellegrini said. “After that, you will see who you must play. It doesn’t matter against whom you must play. It is important to feel you have the quality and capacity to be in the same level as those things.
“In the semi-final, you play against a very good team, but first of all, it is very important to play with the confidence we did in the first leg against Paris.One of the most important merits of this team is to be involved in this competition. We won already one cup, but unfortunately we had a difficult month in February for extra things, so we couldn’t continue fighting for the Premier League. We had a lot of injuries, but I trust 100 per cent in the players who can play.”
The personal satisfaction of taking City to the final, perhaps even winning the Champions League, cannot be overstated for Pellegrini. The Chilean continues to bristle at the controversial refereeing decisions which led to his Malaga team being eliminated by Borussia Dortmund in the 2012-13 quarter-finals, while his Villarreal team were merely a missed Juan Roman Riquelme penalty away from the 2006 final when they failed to overcome Arsenal in the semi-finals.
With Pep Guardiola already lined up to bring his own Champions League expertise to City next season, Pellegrini may be facing his last opportunity to win the competition. “It is a very important game, but not for me or because of what will happen for me next season,” Pellegrini said. “It is very important because we can achieve an important target which is the semi-final of the Champions League.
“I think with the other two teams I arrive to the semi-final and quarter-final with Villarreal, we played twice with Arsenal, the first leg we were the better team and missed a penalty in the second, when they were the better team. But with Malaga, against Dortmund, we were very unlucky with refereeing decisions.”
City will need more than luck on their side against a PSG team who showed in defeating Chelsea at Stamford Bridge last month that they possess the counter-attacking quality to win at the Etihad. But despite the threat posed by the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Angel di Maria and Lucas Moura, Pellegrini will send his City team out with their usual front-foot approach. It will be about fortune favouring the brave.
“We are working here for three years and I always have the same answer,” said Pellegrini. “We are a team that is prepared to score goals. If we prepare to play 0-0 I think we lose. You see the same team you see the last two and a half seasons. We are always talking, seeing and working with all the defenders. Maybe they made some mistakes in the last game against PSG but I have confidence they will play in the level that we know they can.”
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