As the pressure slipped off Alan Pardew’s always-brazen frame after Newcastle’s Capital One Cup victory over Manchester City on Wednesday, it seemed to transfer almost instantly to the shoulders of his opposite number, Manuel Pellegrini.
Suddenly, after a cup exit to follow Saturday’s Premier League defeat to West Ham United and City’s floundering Champions League group stage campaign, the speculation started in earnest that Pellegrini’s job is under threat should results not improve in the near future.
That talk was crystallised by ex-City forward Rodney Marsh, who feared Pellegrini could go the way of predecessor Roberto Mancini if results do not improve soon.
Sparking a round of back-page stories, Marsh told talkSPORT:
I think [Pellegrini] will get the sack. There is every chance, if this carries on, that Pellegrini will be out, the same as Mancini was.
Mancini won the Premier League and the following year finished second and he was sacked.
If Pellegrini carries on like this, and Man City don’t win the league or get to the final at least of the Champions League, which is looking dodgy as well, I think Pellegrini is sacked.
This would seem a little harsh, considering City won the title only a matter of months ago. But it is not unusual for a club that demands nothing short of the highest standards for all the money it invests.
Failure in the Champions League or Premier League has been forgivable in recent seasons, as long as results in one of them have been more than acceptable. Yet City are already six points behind Chelsea (having already played them at home) in the league and remain slightly less than a 50-50 proposition to reach the knockout stages in Europe.
Throw into the mix a surprise home cup loss to “Pardiola” and you suddenly have a difficult situation for Pellegrini to extricate himself from.
In that light, a home derby with Manchester United is either the best or worst possible fixture Pellegrini could have asked for. A win—which remains distinctly possible—will lift much of the oppressive atmosphere around the Etihad Stadium. But a defeat would only deepen the mire (United, a side supposedly in transition this season, would move within a point of their arch-rivals with a win).
In that regard, David Silva’s injury might prove pivotal, with his absence perhaps actually an advantage for City. Obviously the Spaniard is a brilliant, exceptional player—technically there might be no finer talent in the Premier League—but his absence should force Pellegrini to shift away from his preferred 4-4-2 formation, a system he has shown little willingness to be flexible with in recent times.
Silva’s absence might see Pellegrini bolster his midfield instead, with Fernando and Fernandinho joining Yaya Toure in the middle of the park. That would match up better with United’s current diamond system and perhaps hide many of the flaws that have characterised City’s recent poor run.
Sticking with the 4-4-2—if Silva is available to play—might leave City outgunned in the all-important midfield battle. Louis van Gaal is no doubt encouraged by the way that both West Ham and Newcastle (clubs with inferior attacking talents) caused the Citizens no end of defensive issues.
However, City's undoubted quality might force United to adapt to their strategy (rather than the other way around). That is something the Red Devils haven't been able to do with any consistency or certainty in recent weeks.
The pressure is now firmly on Pellegrini's shoulders, with some crucial decisions ahead. Perhaps he needs to shake things up slightly to get City out of their recent rut, or perhaps doubling down on his philosophy and committing to his preferred system will deliver its reward in the end.
The derby might see how willing, or indeed able, he is to tinker with his philosophy. The decisions he makes, and how successful they are, could have much bigger long-term implications than deciding one derby match.
Week 10 Fixtures
All games 3 p.m. GMT (11 a.m. ET) unless otherwise stated.
Newcastle United vs. Liverpool (12:45 p.m.)
Arsenal vs. Burnley
Chelsea vs. QPR
Leicester City vs. West Brom
Hull City vs. Southampton
Stoke City vs. West Ham
Everton vs. Swansea City
Manchester City vs. Manchester United (1:30 p.m.)
Aston Villa vs. Tottenham (4 p.m.)
Crystal Palace vs. Sunderland (8 p.m.)
1. What to watch out for this week
Eto’o making an impact, on and off the pitch
Samuel Eto’o made waves with his brace against Burnley last weekend, but his lasting impact on Everton might be less obvious. The veteran striker has already taken Romelu Lukaku under his wing and appears to be bringing all the professionalism and work ethic that have helped propel his fantastic professional career.
He has already been involved heavily for Everton this season, which means he will almost certainly trigger an appearance-based clause that will extend his contract for a second season.
Lukaku told the Press Association recently (h/t the Daily Mail):
I spend most of the time with him. I come in at the same time as he does, I leave at the same time. We do everything together on and off the pitch as well.
In training we have a finishing competition and the one who loses has to do sprints.
We see each other quite often. He comes to my house, I go to his house. I try to learn as much as I can from him and he tells me stories about how he worked when he was younger.
This kind of influence is so often overlooked but might have a significant impact on Everton’s long-term progression. Eto’o knows exactly what it takes to reach the highest level—and to be successful there—and his insight will be invaluable to a young squad that seems hungry to achieve more.
He brings that winning mentality to the squad. He wants to win the sprints in training, never mind games, and he knows how to control the big moments in games. He’s done that throughout his career. Even just the way he’s been working in training would have been a good enough impact on the club and squad, never mind the goals he’s scored so far. …
…I see him as a gift from the footballing gods, and I am happy for him to continue to enjoy it.
Villa's horror run could continue
Aston Villa joined a select band of clubs on Monday, as they became only the ninth side in Premier League history to lose five games in a row without managing to score a single goal.
Paul Lambert’s side face Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday—a team against whom they have the worst current run of any of the sides in the top flight. Villa haven't won in their last 12 meetings in all competitions (and lost all five contests by a combined 15-0 scoreline in the last two seasons).
After starting the season so brightly, things are suddenly threatening to fall apart for the Villans. Speculation on Friday was that assistant manager Roy Keane would be joining a high-profile reality TV show in the very near future, making one wonder what exactly is going on at the club.
Lambert needs a goal, and a positive result, from his side as soon as possible.
Palace cannot afford any more charity
The fallout from last Saturday’s draw with West Bromwich Albion continues to rumble on. The Midlands club released a statement on Thursday evening defending Craig Dawson after his dangerous elbow on Palace goalkeeper Julian Speroni during the 2-2 draw.
That row distracted from what was a poor result for Palace, who will have expected to hold on for victory after going 2-0 up against a side that—until Dawson’s intervention—looked a little short of fire or intent.
Palace sit precariously above the relegation zone after squandering two points, having already drawn at home with fellow strugglers Burnley this season. These are the sort of games—and points—they cannot afford to let slip away if they want to ensure they survive as easily as they did last season.
On Monday, the Eagles host Sunderland, a team they beat 3-1 in the reverse fixture at the start of last season. On that occasion, it actually proved to be a false dawn—Palace had to sack Ian Holloway and move on to Tony Pulis before results began to pick up on a consistent basis.
This time around, with Sunderland's recent 8-0 loss to Southampton, they will want another win over the Black Cats to start a more clinical run of acquiring points.
2. Video of the week
All eyes will be on the Manchester derby this weekend, with the team selection likely to be key for both players.
3. Player to watch
The speculation about Steven Gerrard’s future kicked off again on Thursday, as the 34-year-old confirmed he would not be retiring at the end of the current campaign—when his current contract at Liverpool expires.
“I won’t be retiring this summer,” Gerrard told The Telegraph. “I will play beyond this season. We will have to wait and see if that’s at Liverpool or somewhere else. That’s Liverpool’s decision.”
Gerrard’s comments appear to be putting a certain pressure on Liverpool, considering the overwhelming majority of Reds fans will want their captain to stay at the club.
If his contract remains untouched, he will be able to discuss deals with foreign clubs starting in January. MLS sides—along with perhaps some of the biggest sides in European football—are likely to come in with some lucrative proposals for the twilight of the Englishman's career.
Gerrard’s preference is to remain on Merseyside, but considering the Premier League title once again feels a distant ambition for the club, he might consider seeing out the remainder of his playing years somewhere else (a brief stint at Real Madrid, for example?).
From Liverpool’s point of view, there has been talk in recent times that Gerrard’s influence has waned this season. He has been unable to lift the team out of its early-season slump and has occasionally been exposed in the current system (he was utterly bypassed on occasions when Real Madrid came to Anfield).
There have even been suggestions in some quarters that he should be dropped for the good of the team, an idea that would have been close to sacrilege just a few months ago.
However, a few dominating performances—starting against Newcastle on Saturday—from Gerrard will end much of the transfer speculation around him. It will become a case of when, not if, both parties can agree an extension.
4. Game of the weekend
Chelsea vs. QPR
Having covered the Manchester derby above, we look elsewhere for this week's top game. It’s a classic case of the front-runner against the no-hoper. Chelsea will be overwhelming favourites to win this one, especially at home, with Queens Park Rangers perhaps hoping to simply get away without taking a significant beating.
QPR actually have a decent record recently against their west London rivals, however, having won two of the last four competitive meetings. If they are to make that three out of five, they will have to follow the blueprint of those other two victories: determined, deep defending before pushing forward with pace on the counter-attack and snatching a goal by any means.
For Harry Redknapp—still under a certain amount of job speculation—this is something of a "free game" in his tenure. His side won against Villa on Monday, so owner Tony Fernandes is unlikely to sack his manager after either this game or the next (which is against Manchester City). That gives Redknapp a little more breathing room as he looks to whip his playing squad into a more cohesive unit.
The visit to Stamford Bridge could also see the return of Adel Taarabt to the squad—exactly the sort of mercurial player who could produce a pivotal moment of magic in a game such as this.
Redknapp’s recent man-management of the Moroccan has been fairly reprehensible (effectively using Taarabt as a human shield when criticism of his own methods was at its highest), but that could all turn on its head if Taarabt returns to the pitch and makes an impact.
Nevertheless, Chelsea will be confident they have the firepower and control to win this game at a canter. Even at this point in the season, winning the title feels to be a case of the Blues ticking off all the “should win” games like this one. Avoid dropping needless points, and anyone else will struggle to catch them.
The clinical edge Diego Costa typically provides would help, but even without him, Chelsea should prove too much for this QPR side.