In a Season That's Made No Sense, Manchester City Could Land the Holy Grail

Jonathan Wilson@@jonawilsFeatured ColumnistApril 14, 2016

Bacary Sagna (R)of manchester City FC reacts after the victory with teammattes during the UEFA Champions League Quarter Final second leg match between Manchester City FC and Paris Saint-Germain at the Etihad Stadium on April 12, 2016 in Manchester, United Kingdom. (Photo by Xavier Laine/Getty Images)
Xavier Laine/Getty Images

Sometime this season might start making sense, but not yet. By the majority of metrics—league form, sense of drift, Yaya Toure’s agent saying ridiculous things—this has been the worst season since Sheikh Mansour arrived at Manchester City, and yet they’ve reached the UEFA Champions League semi-finals.

It’s as though Manuel Pellegrini is a stage conjuror, a master of misdirection, bungling an attempt to steal your hat to disguise the fact that he’s made off with your trousers.

Pellegrini’s reign will stand as a mystery to the future. In three seasons, he’s won a league title, two League Cups and taken City further than they’ve ever gone in the Champions League (he also took Villarreal and Malaga further than they’d ever gone in the competition) and yet he’s never felt like much more than a placeholder. He seems barely to have left a mark, public utterances of profound blandness earning him a reputation for charm when he can be just as tetchy as the next manager if a result has gone against him.

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - APRIL 12: Coach of Manchester City Manuel Pellegrini gestures during the UEFA Champions League quarter final second leg match between Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) at Etihad Stadium on April 12, 2016 in Manchester, Un
Jean Catuffe/Getty Images

Perhaps that’s the nature of modern football and the expectations on the superclubs, but it does lead to some bizarre anomalies. There have been more managers, for instance, to have won the league title with Manchester City (Wilf Wild, Joe Mercer, Roberto Mancini and Pellegrini) than at Manchester United (Ernest Mangnall, Matt Busby and Alex Ferguson). You’d think those four would be feted, that their heads would loom from some Moss Side Mount Rushmore, yet all but Mercer have a distinctly mixed reputation.

Wild didn’t help himself by leading City to relegation the season after winning the league–a unique achievement in English football; doubly so, given they were also the top scorers that season.

Mancini remained popular with much of the support—so much so that they took out a page advert in La Gazzetta dello Sport to thank him after his departure—but after various training-ground spats and an insipid season in 2012-13, there was no great shock when he was sacked.

Nor was there any great outcry when Pellegrini announced that he was leaving at the end of the season–rather it was confirmation of what everybody had already expected was going to happen. And so the possibility remains that, like Jupp Heynckes at Bayern Munich, Pellegrini will bequeath Pep Guardiola a side that has just won the Champions League. Thanks for coming, Sir Galahad, the Grail’s in the saddlebag.

It’s only three decent performances away, yet the prospect still feels vaguely implausible. When they beat West Bromwich Albion on Saturday, it was the first time City had managed back-to-back league wins since October. Can a team that inconsistent really win the Champions League?

Perhaps they can. There is an odd sense of this City pulling themselves together as the season’s end approaches, as though they’ve gone through their mid-life crisis and have worked out what their priorities must be.

Manchester United’s inconsistency means City can focus on the Champions League: fourth place should be theirs (and, given Pellegrini and a number of his squad are unlikely to be at the club next season, how much do they really care about that?).

In part, it’s to do with players recovering from injury. Kevin De Bruyne’s return not only brings his creativity and goals—one in each leg against Paris Saint-Germain—but allows greater balance in midfield, where Fernando and Fernandinho can be left to snap and snarl in front of the back four without worrying about Yaya Toure.

.@DeBruyneKev: MotM vs PSG, Rating 8.35, Goals 1, Shots 1, Key Passes 4, Dribbles 1, Tackles 2 @MCFC pic.twitter.com/pEZtirYmlZ

— WhoScored.com (@WhoScored) April 12, 2016

Toure’s decline has been widely discussed and is in many ways deeply sad. He remains, at his best, a footballer capable of wonderful moments of skill. But he hasn’t adapted as his body has aged, and the result is that he is often caught out of position. City without him are more functional, less classy, but also harder to break down.

One of the best players of his generation has become a risk and, worse, seems not to have accepted his diminishing powers. He may yet have a valuable role coming from the bench in the semis or the final but it’s no coincidence that City’s two clean sheets in the Champions League this season have come without him.

The failings of City’s central defence have been obvious—and not just this season—but at least part of the issue has been the lack of protection the midfield has given them. Both Eliaquim Mangala and Nicolas Otamendi had good games on Tuesday—or at least better games than they have been having (although as Barney Roney pointed out in the Guardian, the stats suggest Pellegrini’s ongoing faith in Martin Demichelis  has been the biggest problem).

There may have been a wildness and a desperation in some of the tackles and blocks, but there was commitment, and it worked. They limited PSG to just six shots (stats from WhoScored.com).

With Vincent Kompany back in training after his calf injury, presumably to replace Mangala when he is fit, City can approach their semi-final with at least some confidence in the solidity of their rearguard.

Samir Nasri’s return should also help. He may not necessarily force his way into a first-choice XI for the semi-final, but his presence should help spread the load in league games.

Paul White/Associated Press

And then there is the opposition. Barcelona are out. Real Madrid have issues of balance and are susceptible on the counter-attack. Bayern Munich have struggled for rhythm since Christmas and have looked vulnerable at the back against both Juventus and Benfica. Atletico are defensively resolute and robustly pragmatic, but they aren’t unbeatable. None of the remaining contenders have the same aura that Barca did last year.

City are very obvious fourth favourites. It would be a shock were they to win—but not as big a shock as it was, say, when Chelsea won in 2012. But suddenly the prize is only three games away, and they look to be finding form at just the right moment.

It’s suddenly become possible that Pellegrini’s reign at City could have the most unlikely and glorious conclusion. And if that did happen, Guardiola could legitimately wonder just why football had decoded to take its mischievous sense of humour out on him.