x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Manuel Pellegrini takes his first year in England all in stride

Few club managers enjoy the distractions of an international break. Less so when the hiatus comes on the back of a defeat. But you would be hard-pressed to guess that Manchester City manager Manuel Pellegrini has any of these concerns.

Manuel Pellegrini, the Manchester City manager, took time during the international break to attend a youth clinic at Abu Dhabi on Sunday. Delores Johnson / The National
Manuel Pellegrini, the Manchester City manager, took time during the international break to attend a youth clinic at Abu Dhabi on Sunday. Delores Johnson / The National

Few club managers enjoy the distractions of an international break. Less so when the hiatus comes on the back of a defeat, leaving them to stew over the result for two weeks, while hoping none of their players suffer any injuries playing for their countries.

Despite having suffered a shock 1-0 defeat at the Stadium of Light last week, you would be hard-pressed to guess that Manchester City manager Manuel Pellegrini has any of these concerns, though.

“I’m always thinking about our performances, not only when we’ve had a defeat but also when we win,” he says with a smile, one he is happy to flash throughout the interview.

“Of course, the best thing before the international break is to win because then you’ve got 15 days without a match, and in our case we’re left with just four or five players, no more, to prepare with during that time.”

For City, like most teams who lose the majority of their players to the international calendar, there is always the danger that some players will return in better shape, physically as well as mentally, than others. Yaya Toure, for instance, was celebrating on Saturday night as Ivory Coast drew 1-1 with Senegal to secure a 3-1 aggregate win and qualification for the World Cup finals in Brazil next summer.

France’s Samir Nasri, on the other hand, suffered a potentially crushing 2-0 loss to Ukraine in Kiev, leaving his country’s hopes of qualification hanging by a thread. It is all part of the job for Pellegrini.

“It’s always difficult when the players get back from international duty and into the domestic competition,” the Chilean said on Sunday during a visit to Manchester City Soccer School in Abu Dhabi. “Of course, if they’ve won with their national squads, it’s easier.”

Casually dressed in a club polo shirt and trainers, Pellegrini gives the impression of someone who has experienced too many of these — make no mistake, hugely irritating for all club managers — breaks to let it worry him.

“You could get one or two days with the players when they return,” he says. “But when they get back they’ve finished their duty with their national teams, so they’re usually ready to get back into domestic action.”

Pellegrini will certainly need his players to be in peak condition for their next match, against fellow title challengers Tottenham Hotspur at Etihad Stadium, on Sunday. So far this season he has had little to worry about concerning his team’s home form, which is the best in the English Premier League; played five, won five, scored 20 and conceded only two. The 4-1 destruction of rivals Manchester United will have brought Pellegrini instant adulation among the fans, too.

It is away from home where City have faltered. Pellegrini is not worried, though, insisting that it is an aberration, that individual errors have undermined performances and proved costly, rather than a flaw with the South American’s strategy.

“It’s not a question of tactics. We’ve won just four points out of 18 away from Etihad, but I think we are not playing badly,” he says. “If you review all the matches, we had a lot more chances than the home teams, but some individual mistakes stopped us from getting the three points. I am absolutely convinced by the way we’re playing.”

The club’s owner, Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed, has once again backed his manager in the transfer market and Pellegrini maintains he is happy with how both of the club’s two major signings from Spain have settled. Alvaro Negredo in particular has caught the eye since his move from Seville.

“Yes, of course they need time to settle into English football,” says Pellegrini, 60. “I think Alvaro is playing very, very well, and Jesus Navas is improving and we’re hoping he continues to do so.”

There is little doubt, however, as to who has been City’s best player so far. Though keen to spread the praise among the squad, the manager was not restrained in singling out the contribution of the man whose right boot won the Premier League for Manchester City in May last year with the final kick of the season, Sergio Aguero.

“I think we have four or five important players in the team, and without doubt Sergio is one of them,” Pellegrini says before adding, “I think that after Cristiano Ronaldo and Leo Messi the third best striker [in the world] is Sergio Aguero.”

High praise, indeed, and deserved, too.

Aguero’s second goal against CSKA Moscow in the English club’s 5-2 victory this month, which confirmed qualification to the Uefa Champions League knock-out round, deserves to be remembered almost as fondly as his title-winning strike against Queens Park Rangers. While Aguero and Co continue to score at will, City’s defence, for so long the base of their success, has suffered hugely from the loss of captain Vincent Kompany.

“It’s a very big loss for our team, he’s very important,” Pellegrini says of his Belgian centre-back. “He’s had very bad luck this year, but we are not thinking about bringing any other player at the moment. We will wait for him to recover.”

Champions League progress would have bought both manager and club time, and, with qualification secured, Pellegrini could afford the luxury of guessing which clubs he thought would be joining City in the last 16 come February.

“I think Bayern is very difficult team to play, but also I think Spain will once again provide two very important teams in Real Madrid and Barcelona, so we’ll have to wait and see who progresses from the round of 16.”

Last season, Pellegrini took Malaga to the brink of the semi-finals before suffering a heartbreaking, last-gasp defeat to Borussia Dortmund. Can he repeat the trick?

“I hope so. Playing in the knock-out stages, over two games, anything can happen,” he says. “I’m certain we are going to play against a very strong squad. But we are also a strong squad.”

Pellegrini gives the impression of a content man, confident in the support that his Abu Dhabi owner have provided him. The Chilean, who has also managed River Plate and Villarreal, among others, says he is surprised by the level of media attention in England compared to Spain. The man who in 2009/10 led Real Madrid to second place in the Primera Liga and a then club record 96 points, is enjoying life in England.

“It’s all different, it’s very different,” he says, a smile betraying a preference to his new environment. “The way the media works in Spain, in Madrid you have two newspapers every day just talking about sport, and especially about football, and in Barcelona it’s the same thing.

“The media [in England] have less to cover. Maybe they have to fill one or two pages for all the sports.

“It’s very different.”

It is generally agreed that every team under Pellegrini’s management has progressed under him, but can he help City improve on last season’s second-place finish?

“I’m not thinking that far ahead,” he says. Typically, with the air of a man without a care in the world.

akhaled@thenational.ae

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