Manuel Pellegrini and his Malaga side crashed out of the Champions League at the quarter-final stage, ending an on-field fairy tale and instantly becoming one of the most in-demand managers in European football.
It was interesting to hear the Soccer Saturday panel discussing Pellegrini’s merits as one of the top coaches in the game and whether he was good enough for the possible “step up” to Chelsea. Not everyone can emerge from the glamorous names of world football’s starting points, and to insinuate that the very best only come from Barcelona, Bayern, Ajax or Madrid is wrong.
But it spoke volumes of the perception of Pellegrini’s triumphs this season, almost hinting that Malaga just happened to be one of those smaller teams who found a bit of luck and went on a fantastic winning streak. No acknowledgement for the struggles Pellegrini has had to face this season, or the fact that he’s done all this before. A switch from Malaga to Chelsea simply encourages the questioning of merits when it is not necessarily needed.
The simple, short version of the story this season is that Pellegrini guided Malaga, in their maiden season, further than any English club in the Champions League. The club from the Costa del Sol were bereft of experience and resources, while the continued financial problems forced key players out the door in the winter market. Nacho Monreal’s sale to Arsenal will precede the sale of equally important names. Those who have helped Malaga this far –Jeremy Toulalan, Ignacio Camacho, Jesus Gamez and Isco – will not be there next season. If the “project” finds new life, Pellegrini may well continue. For now, however, the expectation is for him to join those moving on from La Rosaleda.
If Chelsea allow for flexibility, freedom of movement and unwavering faith, they will get a first-hand account of one of Europe’s best managers. This season wasn’t needed as an indication as to how good and how important Pellegrini is.
The Chilean manager took a small club and guided them into the semi-finals of the Champions League. Were it not for Jens Lehmann’s heroics in the showdown against Juan Roman Riquelme, Pellegrini’s Villarreal could have made it to the final in Paris in their first season in UEFA’s elite club competition.
That wasn’t to be the limit of their reach. Villarreal did the unthinkable, breaking up the duopoly at the top of the La Liga table by finishing second behind Real Madrid in 2008. Since then, no other club outside the top two in Spain has finished higher than third.
Roman Abramovich longs for attractive football, something close to the wondrous performances we’ve seen at the Camp Nou over the years. Pellegrini’s Villarreal were considered the alternative for those who wanted to dig a little deeper into Spanish football. The level of football of display at El Madrigal was excellent, with small, crafty technicians forming the basis of a new hope in Spain.
In fairness to Pellegrini, he was never afforded the patience at the top of the mountain with Real Madrid. The Chilean was told that his time at the Bernabeu would be up if he failed to win the league title. Despite losing out to Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona, Pellegrini guided Madrid to their highest points total in history at the time, falling just three shy of Barcelona’s 99. In hindsight, perhaps it would have been best to continue with the current Malaga manager.
The task at Chelsea will not be too dissimilar to that which Pellegrini faced at Madrid. There will be some who won’t take to him straight away, predominantly because somewhere in the back of the mind there will be thoughts of someone else. Irony? Most definitely. It won’t be the first time Jose Mourinho causes uncertainty for Pellegrini.
But Chelsea have long been criticised for their detrimental approach to managerial appointments. If they want to build a long-term project, overseeing a change in style and the development of a young core of players, Pellegrini is the right choice.
Can he handle the switch to Stamford Bridge? In terms of managerial ability unquestionably, and he more than deserves a sustained period as a challenger for top honours. Whether Abramovich allows it is another matter.