How Pep’s City have added the final piece to their Champions League jigsaw

When Manuel Pellegrini guided Manchester City to the Champions League semi-final in 2016, he was asked how he felt.

“It is an honour,” he said.

Pellegrini was a very good City manager, the man who calmed the fiery tumult of Roberto Mancini’s revolution and set the Blues along the calmer route which would lead to Pep Guardiola’s unprecedented success.

But press conferences, and troop leadership were not his strongest points.

While he was sighing his way through the pre-match meeting with the media and declaring that a place in the last four was an honour, his opposite number was displaying the kind of entitled arrogance befitting a Real Madrid manager.

There were no meek utterances about how humbling it was to have got to the last four from Zinedine Zidane.

“It will be a disaster if we don’t make the final,” was Zidane’s take. No half-measures there, no excuses for his players, no message to them that they had done really well just getting to the semis.

But Pellegrini, just as he was a man for his time, a manager who was just right for the transition of Manchester City, was also reflecting where City were as a squad.

They had great players, men who thought Champions League finals, World Cup finals and multiple league titles were their natural habitat – David Silva, Sergio Aguero, Yaya Toure, Vincent Kompany.

But believing you belong at the highest level as an individual is not the same as having a collective belief that as a squad you should be winning the elite European competition.

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City, like their manager in his press conference, were timid and unassuming in the two legs, with Joe Hart preventing a massacre in the Etihad Stadium clash, which ended 0-0 before a non-event at the Bernabeu was decided by a scrappy Gareth Bale goal.

There was none of the swagger City had shown in winning the Premier League in 2014, and scoring a record 156 goals in all competitions.

So it was revealing, and maybe a sign of a new era for the Blues when they got on the front foot ahead of last week’s re-match in the last 16 second leg.

Guardiola is always respectful to opponents, but he was respectful to his own team this time.

“This is my feeling. We are ready.”

He was referring to the Real Madrid game only, but that state of readiness is equally relevant to their chances of winning the whole thing. City ARE ready. That does not mean they will win it, but if they don’t, it won’t be because of an inferiority complex.

And they will not see it as an honour to reach the semi-final – it will be an opportunity to go all the way.

Pellegrini no doubt believed his squad was capable of winning the trophy, but it never seemed to infect the players. But Pellegrini was not an infectious manager, in the way Guardiola is.

The fact that his brand of belief, hidden beneath self-deprecation and modesty, has communicated itself to his players was evident in the same press conference.

Rodri declared that City were the better team, the better squad, a pronouncement that had most of us testing that our ears had just heard it.

It felt like a view that had the backing of Guardiola, a measured provocation.

Real Madrid will not have liked it, especially coming from a former Atletico player. After all, having a superiority complex is usually their domain.

City believed against Real Madrid, they believe they can and should beat Lyon, and they are buzzing with the confidence that they can go all the way.

It is a big step forward for the team, the squad and the club, regardless of how far they go in the competition.


Manchester Evening News