Manuel Pellegrini says goodbye to Man City faithful with a whimper
MANCHESTER, England -- The Etihad Stadium was perhaps only a quarter full when Manuel Pellegrini took the microphone in the centre circle. He was serenaded by the fans who stayed, saluted in the form of a banner proclaiming him "This Charming Man" and warmly applauded after a brief, dignified but typically unremarkable speech.
Yet the empty seats told a tale. Ever the diplomat, Pellegrini said he was disappointed by the result, not the thousands who had streamed to the exits. "I will never forget you," he said to the remaining supporters, but this was the farewell that fell flat.
Pellegrini's last game at the Etihad Stadium ended with boos at the final whistle. Manchester City were dissatisfied. They may be displaced from the Champions League. A 2-2 draw with Arsenal saw them lose control of their destiny. They require either West Ham or Bournemouth to take points off Manchester United. Otherwise, a side who had faced Real Madrid at the Bernabeu four days earlier will not compete with the European elite next season.
"I am sure next year you will be a very successful team in all the competitions," Pellegrini told the City faithful, but those competitions could include the Europa League. Incoming manager Pep Guardiola's inheritance may be less desirable than expected. Certainly, even if his next employers cling on to their top-four status, he should be under no illusions that it is not flawed.
Bayern Munich's Bundesliga-winning manager will take over a team that twice lost a lead to Arsenal; one that has suffered too many setbacks against their peers. Pellegrini's final season has yielded just seven points from a possible 42 in meetings with the rest of the top eight. City have a solitary victory, at home to Southampton, and far too many defeats.
This should have been just their second win, but other unflattering figures explain why it was not. City have conceded seven league goals with Vincent Kompany on the pitch this season, 33 with him off it. The difference in both statistics and solidity is so stark it explains why two centre-backs are expected to arrive this summer.
They have the two costliest in Premier League history but Eliaquim Mangala and Nicolas Otamendi represent £74 million mistakes, flawed figures who both benefit from Kompany's steadying presence. Deprived of their oft-injured captain, City neglected to mark Olivier Giroud at a corner -- Mangala the guilty party -- and saw Alexis Sanchez dart into a gap to level again. One Chilean ended the day happy but it was the Arsenal goal scorer, not the City manager.
Personnel problems and structural weaknesses have been recurring themes for his side. "We didn't win this game because we conceded two goals," said Pellegrini. Those defensive frailties have come at a cost. A side whose attitude has often been questioned did not lack motivation. What they required was reliability. It was missing when it mattered most.
"We should have won that game, and I think we deserved it," lamented Pellegrini. "Our first 25 minutes were some of the best here this season." But his charges undermined their own fine work with their shortcomings.
"Man City decided to give a big present to Pellegrini in his last home game," said Arsene Wenger. "They were on fire." City borrowed a tactic from Tottenham and Liverpool, two of the teams who have tormented them this season, and played at pace. Too passive in the Bernabeu, they were too powerful for Arsenal. And yet they did not triumph.
Fernando and Fernandinho's dynamism ensured superiority in the midfield. Kevin De Bruyne's driving runs brought one goal, Sergio Aguero's virtuosity another. Jesus Navas gave Nacho Monreal a torrid time, only to pick out the rest of the Arsenal back four with his misdirected crosses.
This could have been a rout, a final famous home win on Pellegrini's watch. It is a ground where City have hammered Arsenal 6-3 and Tottenham 6-0, where they have demolished United 4-1 and defeated both Bayern and Paris Saint-Germain.
"For me it's been three wonderful, unforgettable years," said Pellegrini, but the Etihad Stadium has stopped being a fortress in the last campaign. After five home league defeats, a second draw on their own turf seemed sadly telling for City and offered Arsenal encouragement. As he often does, Wenger praised their character, but they merited credit for equalising twice and retaining third position.
He is set for a 20th-consecutive top-four finish. Pellegrini, like many another, is struggling to be anything like as consistent. "Not winning this game is not the way we wanted to finish the season," he said. "We want to qualify for next year's Champions League. I think we deserve to be in the Champions League because we have had 37 games in the [top-four] positions."
Yet the reality is that positions only mean prizes after 38 matches. And so Pellegrini, who was given the bumps by his players in the Etihad Stadium sunshine two years earlier after winning the title, made a more subdued exit, surrounded by empty seats and with the spectre of domestic failure. It threatens to prove Pellegrini's bad goodbye.
Richard Jolly covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Twitter: @RichJolly.