Belfast Telegraph

Manchester City holding out for a Spanish miracle in the Nou Camp

By Ian Herbert

The comforts of the spectacularly avant-garde five-star W hotel on the Barcelona seafront will have done little to soften the acute sense for Manuel Pellegrini that his career is on the line as his Manchester City side seek to confound expectations in the Nou Camp tonight.

The Chilean put on a brave face as he appeared in one of the hotel's function rooms to discuss what will be required from his players: two goals at least to overturn the 2-1 first-leg deficit, against a team who have lost only twice in 29 games against English opposition on home soil and who have progressed on 33 of the 35 occasions they have won a first leg away from home.

His words signified little in the broader context of two other far more significant utterances in the past three weeks which - in their frankness and fullness - have revealed Pellegrini to be a man struggling to make headway at City and needing to defend himself and his philosophy to the hilt.

The first of these was a press conference in Manchester two weeks ago which, by Pellegrini standards, was extraordinarily candid.

The second was a revealing interview, published on Monday, with Britain's two leading Spain-based football journalists - one of them The Independent columnist Pete Jenson - which put a voice at last to a man who has remained an anonymous mystery to those of us who chronicle Manchester City.

The choreography behind that interview was the most fascinating aspect. It was Pellegrini's agent, Jesus Martinez, who encouraged him to speak up for himself, rather than City - from whom there is simply no definitive sense that the manager's job will be safe when the season is over.

The case Pellegrini makes in his defence is not convincing. The myriad reasons he cites for what he admits has been a failure to progress include a psychological deficit, because "there's always a small dip" when there is not "a tradition of always winning" at a club.

For Pellegrini to offer and accept that statement about City is quite shocking. Other explanations for why a club which has spent over half a billion pounds net in the transfer market since 2007-08 can still lose to Liverpool and Burnley also run contrary to the club's own line.

Failing Uefa's financial fair play rules was a problem, he says in the interview. City also actually needed to sign what he describes as another crack - or "superstar" - player last summer.

It was some outpouring from a manager whom even City's own in-house media have found it difficult to get to speak, though the assessment certainly did not include an acknowledgement of how pitifully poor their record in the transfer market has been since the former chief executive, Garry Cook, and his player acquisition team gave way to Ferran Soriano and the director of football he hired, Txiki Begiristain.

The fact that the squad's destiny tonight rests on the same players Soriano inherited, three seasons and £327m ago, speaks volumes. He and Begiristain also have searching questions to answer.

Pellegrini will be able to erase such doubts at a stroke if he can record an upset in the Nou Camp tonight, because progressing beyond last season's round-of-16 exit point was the task he had been set in Europe this season. There are pitifully few hopes to draw upon, though.

The absence from the Barcelona midfield of Sergio Busquets is one - Xavi Hernandez may replace him in midfield, or else Javier Mascherano will do so, with Jérémy Mathieu replacing him at centre-back. You also wonder whether the home coach, Luis Enrique - who looks perpetually on edge, tetchy, ready to blow - is equal to the pressure to win this trophy. It may prove the undoing of him.

Pellegrini's dilemma is whether to dispense with the 4-4-2 which earned him such criticism in the first leg and allowed Barcelona "the space that City left open", as match-winner Luis Suarez described it after that game. He may go 4-4-1-1.

The problem, as he admitted to Jenson and fellow interviewer Sid Lowe, is that Barcelona can crush a team whether you tighten up or not. In the credit column is the knowledge that his players deliver most in Europe when their backs are to the wall. Make-or-break wins against Bayern Munich and Roma revealed that much.

In these unpromising circumstances, Pellegrini's agent is leaving nothing to chance. The charm offensive of recent weeks has included Martinez praising the beauties of Naples, where a managerial seat at Napoli will lie vacant when Rafael Benitez returns to his home in England's North-west this summer. Napoli is a godforsaken place to work. Which is precisely why Pellegrini needs a miracle tonight.

Champions League: Barcelona v Man City, Nou Camp, 7.45 pm (Sky)      

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