Manuel Pellegrini will take charge of his final game at the Etihad Stadium with his Manchester City legacy hanging in the balance.
That Pellegrini heads into the clash against Arsenal on Sunday searching for his first victory of the season against any of the Premier League’s current top six tells the story of his inconsistent and, for many, frustrating final campaign in Manchester.
A team capable of reaching the final four in Europe is not yet certain to finish among the top four in England, and the club’s patchy form has been enough to turn a section of the City support against their hitherto popular manager.
The Chilean won the title and the League Cup in his debut season but, for some, his popularity has waned in recent months despite winning his second League Cup and guiding the club to the semi-finals of the Champions League for the first time in its history.
Some have even gone as far to suggest that, given a supposed unhappiness at the handling of Pep Guardiola’s arrival, he could not care less whether the team get the chance to go one better in Europe’s top club competition next season.
But if he was feeling the pressure ahead of a such a potentially crucial match, he did not show it on Friday as he faced an inquest over the club’s season and his three years in charge.
“I am not dying,” he said as he laughed off questions about his legacy. “I think it’s more a question for when you die how you want to be remembered.”
Pellegrini was indeed in an upbeat mood – he even teased journalists at one point – and gave the impression that he is comfortable with the job he has done since inheriting a fractured dressing room from Roberto Mancini.
The Italian had fallen out with a number of senior players, ones that still make up the backbone of the current side, by the time he was turfed out in 2013. City turned to the “holistic” Pellegrini, hopeful that he would unite the squad and get the Blues playing attractive, attacking football.
He has ensured Joe Hart, Vincent Kompany, David Silva, Yaya Toure and Sergio Aguero have remained key cogs during his three years. But what about the football?
“I try to give this team what I think that football is,” he said. “There have been three seasons, I always try to play good football, to try to be a scoring team, to try to win titles.
“I arrived here in a difficult moment for the club, but I think during three years, normally the fans enjoy the games here at home. We were the top scorers of the Premier League the first season. The three seasons we were the most scoring team of the Premier League, but those things are important if you have achievement, not just the records.”
Pellegrini clearly believes he has the achievements to make the style worthwhile. “We had one Premier League, two cups and now a semi-final of the Champions League. It’s a good improvement in Champions League. I am not happy about that [losing to Real Madrid] but it’s better that what this club did before.”
But disaster, as Pellegrini himself termed it, could be around the corner. Defeat to Arsenal would open the door to Manchester United and West Ham in the race to clinch a top-four finish, something the positive-thinking manager admits would be a sour end to his City reign.
“I think that, first of all, for fans here in England, the Premier League is the most important thing, then the Champions League,” he reflected. “If you are not in the top four and in the Champions League the next year, to demonstrate you are one of the best teams in England, then for me it’s a disaster of a season. That’s why I always said last year, when we didn’t win any titles, that it was not a disaster.
“It was not a good season, no, it was not a good season, but a disaster is when you are not involved in the next season’s Champions League. That is a disaster for all the big teams.”
If Pellegrini is to steer his side away from the rocks he will need to find a way to halt a run that has defined City’s season, and could yet define his reign. Ten league defeats – including thrashings at the hands of Stoke City, Southampton, Liverpool (twice), Tottenham and Leicester City – have not just left the Blues dicing with “disaster”, but a sour taste in the mouths of a number of supporters.
It is not simply coincidence or bad luck that City have not beaten anybody in the top six; in their nine games against the division’s best performing sides, they have barely had a sniff of victory.
Pellegrini, though, does not seem overly concerned. “That’s a statistic that is not very important for me. A lot of things happened in these games but it is strange that to be so high in the table we didn’t win those games against the top teams. I hope that we are going to finish with that statistic on Sunday.”
An 11th defeat of the season, though, may preclude the manager from taking to the mic and saluting the Etihad crowd for the final time. “First we will try to win the game, after that we will see the best way to do it,” he admitted.
The mood, perhaps, would not be appropriate for traditional end-of-season send-offs. When it comes to the Pellegrini era as a whole, however, the man himself seems content for the fans to make up their own minds.
“We did a lot of important and positive things, and some negative things,” he concluded. “After that everyone can make a positive analysis or a negative one.”