Champions League Success or Bust for Manuel Pellegrini at Manchester City?

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Champions League Success or Bust for Manuel Pellegrini at Manchester City?
Alex Livesey/Getty Images
Pellegrini is going to need to do a lot more than just point and yell to get City through the group stage.

It may feel ridiculous to call the first of six Champions League group stage matches a "must win," but after the first four Premier League matches of Manuel Pellegrini's Manchester City managerial tenure, that is where we are.

This must be some way for Pellegrini to be celebrating such a milestone, conjuring Champions League tactics for his suddenly impotent side with the world watching:

City's Champions League disappointments the past two seasons punched Roberto Mancini's ticket out of Manchester. Pellegrini was carefully chosen to replace Mancini largely on his successful Champions League record.

Pellegrini has never led a team to a Champions League title, but he took Villarreal to the knockout stage twice, including a semifinal loss to Arsenal in 2006.

Pellegrini also took Malaga to the Champions League quarterfinals last season, losing in heartbreaking fashion to eventual tournament runners-up Borussia Dortmund.

Much was made of City chief executive Ferran Soriano's maybe lighthearted (maybe not) insistence that he was looking for "five trophies in the next five years" from City under Pellegrini.

Further down the bbc.co.uk piece that contained that gem, though, were even more telling words that Pellegrini read with rapt attention.

Alex Livesey/Getty Images
Soriano is shaping up as a tough boss to please.

Asked if he would tolerate a second straight season without silver, Soriano casually threw down a real gauntlet. 

"If next year we don't win, but progress our football and get to the semi-finals of the Champions League, finish second in the Premier League and lose the FA Cup final again, that will be fine," Soriano said.

Well that's certainly reassuring. If Pellegrini:

  • gets City through the Champions League group stage for the first time in the club's history
  • staves off three of Manchester United, Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal to secure second place in the Premier League, and
  • takes City back to a second consecutive FA Cup final

then all is well and he can stay for, you know, maybe another full season.

Pellegrini's charges did not do much to boost his confidence in the run-up to City's Champions League opener with Viktoria Plzen.

While Plzen have been piling up results—they have not lost since July 12—City have been accruing doubts and recriminations.

The purportedly soft introduction to the Premier League season turned out to have a frozen stone core. City lost all three points to newly promoted Cardiff City and were egregiously barren of offensive ideas at Stoke City over the weekend.

Concern and pointed interest in City's Champions League performance would have been white hot even if City had started the Premier League season unbeaten and untied through four matches.

But with City holding only seven of the 12 points they could have had in league play, this Champions League group stage match has taken on the feel of a referendum on whether Pellegrini is actually the right manager for the job.

For his part, Pellegrini is saying precisely what needs to be said about City's prospects for Champions League success.

Alex Livesey/Getty Images
City were the proverbial sucker at the table against Ajax Amsterdam last fall.

Per Kevin Palmer of ESPNFC.com, Pellegrini warned against complacency, "I think that the team has to approach it in a very humble way first of all, with the knowledge that the differences between the different teams are very small."

The City boss also underscored the need to do something Mancini's teams notoriously did not do in the Champions League last season—show up:

"I have always repeated the same sentence to my players: ‘If we are eliminated in the Champions League, then it needs to be because we faced a team that was superior to us and who played better than us.’ Not because they faced a bad-playing team and got eliminated without any efforts from our side."

Pellegrini could not have been more emphatic about his desire not to go out of the Champions League quietly without rapping it.

Win or lose against Plzen, at least the rest of Pellegrini's week should be pretty restful.

United come to the Etihad on Sunday.

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