MANCHESTER, April 13, (Agencies): Manchester City’s Champions League quarter-final success over Paris Saint-Germain demonstrated that reports of the team’s demise under Manuel Pellegrini have been greatly exaggerated.
Pellegrini has been cast as a dead man walking ever since the announcement on Feb 1 that Pep Guardiola will succeed him as manager at the season’s end and City’s dwindling league form of three wins in eight games was held up as proof that his players had downed tools.
Instead they pulled off the most eye-catching European result since the club’s acquisition by super-rich Emirati owner Sheikh Mansour in 2008, giving Pellegrini a moment of sweet personal vindication.
“I came to City because I had good performances in Europe, so to leave this club without taking them to a new state would have been a bad thing for me,” said the Chilean, who succeeded Roberto Mancini in 2013.
“It is very important to me to be in the semi-finals because that is my job.”
It is the third time Pellegrini, 62, has broken new ground for a club in the Champions League, having led Villarreal to the semi-finals in 2006 and steered Malaga to the last eight in 2013.
An urbane, understated figure, Pellegrini has already brought one Premier League title and two League Cups to the Etihad Stadium, but although it took the might of Barcelona to oust City from the Champions League in his first two seasons, he has been seen as something of a tactical ingenu.
Pellegrini, it was said, was too closely wedded to attacking football to achieve success in Europe, but the manner of the triumph over PSG showed that City could play on the front foot in the Champions League, and prosper.
City were sloppily defensively in the first leg, but scored opportunistic away goals through Kevin De Bruyne and Fernandinho, and their reward for refusing to sit on their advantage in Tuesday’s return leg was the 76th-minute De Bruyne strike that sealed a 3-2 aggregate win.
That PSG were their last-eight victims was rich in symbolism — the other club buoyed by vast Middle Eastern wealth, already French champions and supposedly several developmental stages ahead of City, sent back to Paris with their tails between their legs.
In passing, City’s victory served to debunk several commonly held truths about their side.
City, supposedly, were a one-man team, but Sergio Aguero fluffed his lines by missing a first-half penalty and it was left to De Bruyne to apply the coup de grace with his 15th goal of an impressive debut season.
City were said to be too dependent on a spine that has been largely unchanged since 2011, but injured captain Vincent Kompany was, for once, not missed and nor was midfield colossus Yaya Toure, who Pellegrini left on the bench despite his return to fitness after a knee problem.
Centre-backs Nicolas Otamendi and Eliaquim Mangala have both been described as expensive failures, but even without Kompany’s steadying influence they left Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Edinson Cavani feeding on scraps.
Goalkeeper Joe Hart, meanwhile, produced a faultless display, which included an alert late stop that prevented Cavani from giving PSG hope.
“We criticised the back four, but they were solid, as were Fernandinho and Fernando,” said former England winger Chris Waddle, who was analysing the second leg for BBC radio.
“The Champions League suits Nicolas Otamendi and Eliaquim Mangala. The Premier League is a hard league, it is end-to-end and tough. They played a European game (against PSG) and ground out a result.”
Friday’s semi-final draw will be the latest staging post in a journey that has seen City emerge from the shadow of cross-town rivals Manchester United to become a major European player.
The strength of the opposition is formidable, but whatever comes to pass in the next round, Pellegrini will walk away at the end of the season knowing that he has done his bit.
Paris St Germain’s fourth consecutive failure to make it past the Champions League quarter-finals on Tuesday exposed the limitations of coach Laurent Blanc and again took the wind out of striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s Premier League ambitions.
The former France coach’s decision to reinstate Serge Aurier and an unexpected tactical shift backfired spectacularly in the second leg of the tie against Manchester City, who did not have to do much to win 1-0 for a 3-2 aggregate triumph.
PSG were without their usual formidable midfield as Marco Verratti was ruled out injured, Blaise Matuidi was suspended and Thiago Motta limped off the pitch in the first half.
With centre back David Luiz suspended, Blanc, who recently extended his contract until 2018, opted for a 3-5-2 formation instead of his usual 4-3-3.
It was reminiscent of France’s Euro 2012 quarter-final against Spain, where Blanc fielded two fullbacks on the same flank and they were picked apart.
“The defeat is on me,” said Blanc, who will also no doubt regret giving Aurier his first start since February as the defender looked off the pace throughout and lost possession to hand City the early penalty that Sergio Aguero missed.
However, if Blanc came out of the game badly, Ibrahimovic probably suffered even more costly reputational damage. The striker, who famously described himself as perfect and said recently that PSG did not exist before Qatar Sport Investment took over in 2011, missed a penalty in the first leg and was a pale shadow of himself at the Etihad.
Often playing deep, he carried little threat and seemed to lack his usual swagger as the Swede, who scored 30 goals in Ligue 1 this season, had only two long-range free kicks and a late disallowed goal to show for his forgettable efforts.
“It’s nice to play brilliantly early in the season, to impress everyone but a season is long and it’s in the end that you have to perform,” he said, echoing the criticism that has often come his way.
While Cristiano Ronaldo scored a hat-trick in Real Madrid’s impressive comeback win over VfL Wolfsburg on Tuesday and Luis Suarez got two to drag Barcelona back into their tie against Atletico Madrid last week, Ibrahimovic yet again failed to step up when it really mattered.
He has reportedly been touting himself to the Premier League in recent weeks, with Manchester United understood to be among his preferences, but on the evidence of Tuesday’s performance few clubs would be interested in forking out the huge salary he would demand.
Though Ibrahimovic silenced some of his critics in 2012 when he scored four goals for Sweden against England, he has managed only six goals in his 22 club matches against English opposition, which have provided just four wins.