Two days before what would appear to be his inevitable coronation as a Barclays Premier League winner, Manuel Pellegrini sat behind a desk in a Portakabin at Manchester City’s training ground and stuck rigidly to a favoured formula.
‘It is a normal game,’ Pellegrini said on Friday. ‘Just one more game. After the finish on Sunday I will tell you what I feel.’
Friday afternoons with Pellegrini never tend to be very exciting. Rarely, if ever, does he tell anyone what he really feels. Even his players claim not to know much more than they absolutely need to.
Pellegrini: I have the whole squad fit for West Ham game
WHAT’S LEFT TO PLAY FOR…
If West Ham win at the Etihad, Liverpool can pip Man City by beating Newcastle at Anfield.
Hull qualify through the FA Cup and fifth-placed Everton are in. Tottenham will get the final spot with a point against Aston Villa.
If Spurs lose, Man Utd can pip them with a win at Southampton.
IS THERE A BONUS PLACE FROM FAIR PLAY LEAGUE?
No. Only the top three nations in UEFA’s Respect rankings get an extra Europa League spot. Norway, Sweden and Finland will receive that honour.
Norwich still have a mathematical chance of survival but need to beat Arsenal and hope West Bromlose to Stoke with a 17-goal swing in the Canaries’ favour.
‘It’s hard to really get to know him,’ said a source close to one of City’s English players this week.
‘He’s just a nice bloke. His training is straightforward, nothing amazing. But he just gets the job done and lets the players do theirs.
‘What is important to them is that he is straight. He is approachable and if you ask him a question, you get an answer. Too many managers bulls**** players or, even worse, ignore them. You don’t get that with Pellegrini. You get an answer and — even if it’s not the answer you want — the players appreciate that.’
If Friday press conferences and weekday training sessions are nothing to get excited about under Pellegrini, Saturdays and Sundays tend to be different.
One more point at home to West Ham United tomorrow will bring City their second title in three seasons.
The London club know all about City’s power. Already this season, City’s threshing machine has brought them 12 goals in three games against Sam Allardyce’s team. Pellegrini’s football has been expressive, aggressive and relentless. It is the way City football director Txiki Begiristain de- manded it to be when Pellegrini was hired last summer. ‘That was absolutely a prerequisite,’ said a club source.
The football flies in the face of Pellegrini’s character and demeanour, though.
Party time: A 4-0 win over Aston Villa on Wednesday put Manchester City on the brink of the title
MAN IN THE MIDDLE
City should be pleased to see Martin Atkinson in charge. In his first Premier League game City won 3-0 at home, he was in charge when they won the 2011 FA Cup final and when they won the League Cup in March. But he allowed Michael Owen to score the 96th-minute winner in the Manchester derby — a 4-3 thriller in 2009.
He claimed he was ‘a dog’ as a player and had to completely and deliberately change his character in order to bring about the calm that now personifies him.
Whatever the case, when he arrived at City last July, Pellegrini soon realised he was inheriting a dressing room badly in need of soothing. ‘Manuel wasn’t hired because of his calm or because he is a nice man,’ another club source told Sportsmail this week. ‘He was hired for his reputation as a coach.
‘Having said that, he had done his research before he arrived. He knew what had happened last season.’
It’s hard to assess Pellegrini’s impact on City without mentioning his predecessor Roberto Mancini. It is necessary context.
The Italian was a successful City coach and popular in some quarters. Nonetheless, the dressing room he left behind was fractured and one of Pellegrini’s clearest triumphs has been to apply some glue.
The end: Mancini was popular among fans after guiding City to the title in 2012 but left last season
‘Even the best players could feel like s*** under Mancini,’ said a dressing room source. ‘For example, David Silva signed a new contract at the start of last season and reached the end talking about leaving. That was how bad it got. Even Yaya Toure got fed up.
‘Pellegrini put a stop to that. He doesn’t scapegoat players. Dressing room b******ings aren’t really his style. We never really get them now. We just go out and play.’ If all this sounds too simple, that is because it is.
However, Pellegrini’s ability to drag something approaching the best from the playing squad built in part by Mancini has been fundamental to progress and Silva hinted at that in an interview he gave in the run-up to Sunday’s game.
‘Having Manuel here has helped me personally,’ said the Spanish international. ‘It’s been really good for me. He’s made it a happy place and has changed our style of play, too. You see that in the way we play, attack minded, lots of goals.
Silverware: Pellegrini lifts the Capital One Cup after City beat Sunderland in the final at Wembley
Rejuvenated: David Silva is happy with Pellegrini’s appointment after become disillusioned under Mancini
‘His calmness has been obvious and it really helps us at difficult moments. It’s nice to have that calm attitude around you when things get tough.’
If good coaches can be identified by an ability to improve players then there is evidence in Pellegrini’s favour.
Players like Edin Dzeko, Aleksandar Kolarov and Samir Nasri have taken steps forward this season and even those written off by some supporters — such as Javi Garcia and Martin Demichelis — are ending the season well. That is down to subtle handling, at least in part.
Players left out of the team, meanwhile, have benefited from some honesty. One of Pellegrini’s biggest calls was to drop Joe Hart for a month in early winter. In World Cup season it could have demoralised the England goalkeeper.
‘Joe came back from that a better goalkeeper,’ revealed a source close to him. ‘He was disappointed and hurt but Pellegrini explained the reasons honestly and clearly. Joe had little choice to accept it and deal with because it was all up front.’
On arriving at the club, Pellegrini soon established a reputation as a measured coach who talked but also listened. Living in the nearby football enclave of Hale, the 60-year-old plays the occasional round of golf and has now brought his wife Carmen to join him, something he had never done in a decade working outside South America.
Decisions: Joe Hart was dropped for a month after a number of mistakes, but has turned his form around
Shake it off: Alan Pardew confronts Pellegrini during a game against Newcastle in January
There have been some hiccups this season. Defeat by Barcelona in the Champions League at the Etihad Stadium prompted a rather embarrassing attack on the Swedish match official.
‘Within half an hour of that he knew what he’d said was wrong,’ said the club source.
Briefly an old adversary, Jose Mourinho, threatened to interrupt progress as Chelsea dismantled City on their own turf and, just for a few days, Pellegrini allowed himself to be pulled towards a public argument with the Portuguese.
Pellegrini soon reverted to type, though, and the incident that perhaps best summed up his approach in the rather frenetic, emotional world of the Premier League came at St James’ Park in January when Newcastle manager Alan Pardew called him a ‘f****** old c***’ on the touchline.
Pardew subsequently wrote to Pellegrini to apologise, something the City manager never publicised.
It was Pellegrini’s reaction after the game that said most about him, though, when it was explained to him in Spanish exactly what Pardew had called him.
‘Is that all?’ Pellegrini smiled, with a raised eyebrow. ‘I have been called much worse.’
CAN WEST HAM PROVIDE A FINAL TITLE TWIST?
West Ham will have the fate of the Premier League title in their hands, but can they pull off a shock at the Etihad?
WHY THEY CAN…
West Ham have a habit of doing well on the last day of the season. In 2006 they denied their sickness-stricken rivals Tottenham a place in the Champions League with a 2-1 home win and in 2007 Carlos Tevez’s goal at Old Trafford ensured the club escaped relegation on the final day.
City should beware a Sunday roast. They have lost six league games this season, and four of those came on a Sunday.
WHY THEY CAN’T…
West Ham do not travel well to the blue half of Manchester. In their last 25 away games at Man City, they have won just twice, drawing three times and losing a whopping 20 games.
1 – Man City have lost just one of their last 13 Premier League matches against West Ham. They have won nine and drawn three.
City don’t so much have home advantage as home domination. They have won 49 points at home this season, more than any side, and they have a phenomenal goalscoring record at the Etihad.
12-1 – After three games this season, one in the league and two in the League Cup semifinal, Man City are beating West Ham by an aggregate score of 12-1. Don’t bet against them extending that score-line on Sunday.
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