What does Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini need to do to save his club's recently damaged season?
Win the Premier League. Thanks for reading.
That is not snarky hyperbole—it is harsh truth. Unless Manchester City chase down, catch and pass Jose Mourinho's league-leading Chelsea side, and hold off hard-charging Liverpool and lingering Arsenal in the process, Pellegrini's first season running the show at the Etihad will be judged a failure.
This is not how Pellegrini planned it, of course, but after City crashed heavily out of the FA Cup and were ushered out of the Champions League, Pellegrini's side suddenly has only Premier League matches left on the slate.
Chelsea's recent loss to Aston Villa served to crack open the door to the Premier League title. But as long as Chelsea are atop the table, the road to the league crown goes through Stamford Bridge.
So the first thing Pellegrini can do to enhance City's title hopes is to hope the man he replaced, Roberto Mancini, loses at Stamford Bridge later this week.
A Chelsea victory over Galatasaray will add two more high-leverage matches to Chelsea's schedule. City will thus be rooting for Chelsea in every Champions League match they play from here until May 11. Let Chelsea exert themselves in Europe and weaken themselves for Premier League matches in the process.
The next thing Pellegrini can do to save City's season is to prepare for the possibility that Chelsea will win all of their remaining Premier League matches. That is not as insane as it might sound.
Chelsea have eight league matches left. Per the current table, five of Chelsea's league matches in the run-in are against relegation-threatened clubs; only two are against title challengers (home to Arsenal, away to Liverpool).
Chelsea are thus going to be favored in every remaining league match except perhaps the one at Anfield.
City have 11 league matches left. How can they maximize their points in the matches that remain?
The first order of City business for Pellegrini is to fix his striker situation.
After flying out to 100 goals in all competitions at a breakneck pace, Pellegrini's Greatest Show on Turf has stalled repeatedly in recent weeks. You do not need a doctorate in mathematics or applied game theory to figure out why.
Sergio Aguero has not scored a goal since the end of January and at the time of writing he is on the shelf again. Alvaro Negredo has made nine appearances in all competitions without a goal—he has gone nearly two solid months without a goal.
Edin Dzeko's insurance marker against Hull City broke a nine-match goalless streak. And while Stevan Jovetic insists that he is fit, City fans will believe that when they see it.
Pellegrini can keep trying to grind out tight victories by relying on his talented midfielders to provide the goals. It worked at Hull City and before that at Stoke City.
When City were flying earlier this season, though, it was because Aguero, Negredo and Dzeko were putting the wood to people. Trying to win Premier League matches without goals from strikers is a grueling, often fruitless proposition. As Mourinho could no doubt attest.
The next task for Pellegrini is to extract every last ounce of defensive juice from his dubious back line.
All season, City's Keystone Kops routine at the back has been the iffy backhand City has had to run around to win. Defensive follies cost City dearly at Cardiff, at Aston Villa and at Chelsea.
After those stumbles, concealing City's defensive frailties became easy to do during that part of the campaign when they were pounding in goals by the fistful. Nobody remembers a defensive lapse that turns a 5-0 win into a 5-1 win.
The goals have dried up again, though, and now every time Martin Demichelis, Pablo Zabaleta or Vincent Kompany commits a hapless foul and/or gets sent off, City's season feels like the sword of Damocles could fall in an eye blink.
To borrow from Rick Pitino, Blaise Matuidi is not walking through that door. Neither the Joleon Lescott of two seasons ago nor the Matija Nastasic of last season's second half seem to be available, either.
Pellegrini has Kompany, Zabaleta and a host of close-your-eyes-and-hope options to play with them. Which is why fixing the striker trouble is the most important thing for Pellegrini to accomplish.
City have a far better chance to win a slew of 4-2 matches than they do to 1-0 and 2-1 the league to death coming home.
Pellegrini's last punch-list item has to be successful squad rotation. This differs from the squad rotation he has tried so far this season, which has often yielded discouraging results.
The Chilean's first real effort at squad rotation this season came at Stoke. Pellegrini made several changes from his previous XI against the Potters and it showed. City played like strangers and were very lucky to leave the Britannia with a draw.
Since then, except for domestic cup matches and the Champions League qualifying match at Bayern Munich, Pellegrini has apparently been scared to take his chances with players like James Milner, Javi Garcia, Lescott and Nastasic.
With City playing 11 league matches in the same time interval where most Premier League sides will play nine or 10, though, Pellegrini really has no choice but to find some way to win matches while giving leggy stars like Yaya Toure, Fernandinho and Kompany an occasional blow.
Where will City finish in the league?
Admittedly this has to be a frightening reality for Pellegrini. If he sits these stars in a loss, the second-guessing will start half an hour before the final whistle blows. But there is not another way.
City still have to visit Old Trafford, the Emirates, Anfield and Goodison Park. Pellegrini will need to play his best XI in all of those matches. He will therefore need to find a way to win the seemingly softer matches (home to Fulham and Sunderland, away to Crystal Palace) with some of his squad players.
Pellegrini's men are in with a chance for the Premier League title. But so are Liverpool and Arsenal, and Chelsea are still running along the inside rail with the lead.
Unfortunately for Pellegrini, City's Champions League and FA Cup shortcomings mean that the club's entire season will be judged on whether they are lifting the trophy on May 11.
And heavy lies the head that wears the crown.