Manchester City: where did it all go wrong?
It is hard to overstate how overwhelmingly relieved Manchester City were to have found Manuel Pellegrini, the liberating and very human antidote to what had become the toxic reign of Roberto Mancini.
Some at the club wonder to this day how their meeting with Mancini at a Sardinia hotel in 2009 ended with the Italian – an out-of-work football manager at that time – negotiating himself an entire backroom staff and many other personal demands.
The appointment of Pellegrini as his successor not only felt like the end of an annexation. There was a feeling back then that the 60-year-old's maturity and emotional intelligence would engender a commitment to the common cause that Mancini, with his confrontational style, had destroyed.
"A group that behaves like a family where everybody respects everybody," is what the chief executive, Ferran Soriano, said last summer that Pellegrini would deliver.
There is no doubt that the players are committed to him in a way that they were not with his predecessor, even though the Chilean's inscrutability makes his way of managing difficult to fathom.
Yet the draw at home to Sunderland, which leaves the prospect of a Premier League title for City this year looking very remote, does ask some profound questions about how Pellegrini's powers of motivation compare to the more transparently motivational talents of the Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers and his Everton counterpart Roberto Martinez.
Engendering "respect", as Soriano asked for, is one thing. Building a winning machine is something else.
That City should have failed to find the motivation for a game such as Wednesday's was almost as shocking an indictment of those who prepared the team as the home defeat to Wigan Athletic in the FA Cup semi-final, six weeks ago.
The football caravan moved on, allowing City to escape a public annihilation for an unforgivable lack of will to avenge last season's FA Cup final defeat.
They knew what they were up against on Wednesday, because Sunderland certainly gave City a game in the Capital One Cup final and beat them at the Stadium of Light in November.
Yet City were allowed to head into their decisive game-in-hand hiding behind a dubious sense of injustice about what happened four days earlier at Anfield.
"Football is not a fair game," Pellegrini (below) said in Wednesday's programme notes. "It is made up by good things, beautiful things, moments of great skill and mistakes.
"We made a mistake and [Liverpool] won the game."
If that was the pitch to his players before Sunderland arrived, little wonder they were still traumatised by the 3-2 defeat – as Pellegrini suggested.
City's recovery in the second half at Anfield was impressive but there was nothing criminal about the scoreline.
It was not the first time in the past week that the manager's wisdom was called into question. Pellegrini effectively told the Sunday newspaper journalists late last week that Chelsea were too dull to clinch the title.
"I think that the most attractive football and the more goals you can score should be rewarded," he said. "Big teams must play as big teams."
Chelsea may very well clinch the title by defending immeasurably better than the rest (24 goals shipped to Liverpool's 42 and City's 34) and if so, then they will be worthy winners. The history books will state simply: "Champions – Chelsea."
Their manager Jose Mourinho has done more with his inheritance than Pellegrini, to date, and his tactical and footballing triumph away to City in February did seem to do psychological damage to the home club, who have looked far less imperious since.
It was revealing when midfielder Fernandinho observed yesterday: "In February we were a little down but recovered and made some good performances in March."
Those of a City disposition who pour scorn on inquisitions might point to Liverpool's lighter workload. City have played 52 games so far, including seven in 26 days in March; Liverpool have played 39. They have also suffered more heavily with injuries.
But City lack a back-up player for every position – an aspiration which dates back to the Mark Hughes era. When Yaya Touré and David Silva are missing, as both were on Wednesday, the side begin to look thin on quality.
A substantial squad theirs might be, but a substantially excellent one it is not.
Down the order, the squad is still populated with untrusted players like Javi Garcia, Jack Rodwell, Joleon Lescott and Stevan Jovetic, who do not seem to be a genuine part of the collective. Rodgers has built his collective by developing precisely the type of Englishmen who you feel would have fallen by the wayside at City – Jordan Henderson, Raheem Sterling, Jon Flanagan and Daniel Sturridge.
And so it has come to pass that the best paid squad in global sport has been eclipsed by the club that is 20th on that list.
Liverpool's average annual salary is £3.4m a year (£65,457 a week) against City's £5.33m (£102,653) according to the latest Sporting Intelligence global sports salaries survey.
Pellegrini may well deliver what Soriano asked. His target of five trophies in five years, made last summer, was predicated on an acceptance that City were starting out all over again.
But the motivational challenge Soriano has set him – drawing together a multinational group of players to create a core which possesses a common mentality and purpose – looks a daunting one today.