Manchester City against Real Madrid might be a novel pairing in the semi-finals of the Champions League, but there is no shortage of sub-plots ahead of Tuesday evening’s first leg at the Etihad Stadium.
The most intriguing of all is the possibility of City manager Manuel Pellegrini wreaking revenge on the club where he was given his dream job but then denied a fair chance to succeed at it.
Back in summer 2009, Pellegrini was appointed Madrid coach as Florentino Perez returned for a second spell in charge at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu.
“We want a spectacular team and that requires a man like Pellegrini, capable of taking on this responsibility,” Florentino said that day. “He is an intelligent professional, hardworking, level-headed, who looks after the ball and proposes an elegant style of play. He has the bravery necessary to trust in young players at a team like real Madrid where there is so much expectation. He has the experience to live with the tension and the pressure. I like his ideas and his plans.”
Pellegrini was also pretty happy when he spoke to the media that day - “I’ve had the good fortune that Florentino has chosen me to take charge of this huge project and I'm convinced he has chosen the right person,” he said. “This is a dream for me, but I have a lot of experience and this will not change who I am. I do not feel a galactico manager.”
That last line was to prove quite prophetic. Without consulting too much with his new coach about his “ideas and plans”, Florentino immediately spent €200m on players - including the new world’s most expensive player Cristiano Ronaldo, along with Karim Benzema and Kaka. This then required the raising of some funds - and other players including Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben were sold late in the transfer window despite Pellegrini counting on them as integral squad members.
The team unsurprisingly did not knit immediately together - most infamously when an XI including Benzema, Raul, Guti, Rafael van der Vaart, Ruud Van Nistelrooy on the bench and Royston Drenthe at left-back was hammered 4-0 by third tier neighbours Alcorcon in the Copa del Rey. Pellegrini's Madrid also exited the Champions League embarrassingly to Lyon in the last 16.
Their La Liga campaign went better, even with Ronaldo missing a chunk of the season injured. 96 points from 38 games was a Madrid club record at the time, but Pep Guardiola’s Barca were at their peak and retained the title with 99.
Meanwhile, Pellegrini's decisions were being undermined by a practically season-long Marca lead media campaign, culminating in a nastily personal “You’re fired Manolo” front page spread. It was widely understood around the Spanish capital that Florentino had given the nod to this treatment, and an open secret that Jose Mourinho was lined up to come in the next summer.
Since this season’s semi-final draw was made, the now City boss has popped up regularly in the Spanish press, telling AS, that he held no grudges about what happened.
“I don’t have anything against Florentino Perez or the Real Madrid board,” he maintained. “I was lucky enough to be the manager of that great institution for a season when the situation maybe wasn’t the best it could have been. But we performed well in La Liga, it was Real’s best season in history up to that point. For me it has always been a source of pride to have managed Real Madrid and I don’t have any desire for revenge against anybody.”
Pellegrini even gave an interview to Marca last week, despite how difficult that paper had made his life during the season at the Bernabeu.
“Inside the club, it was difficult,” he admitted. “I tried to rise above that, to have good relationships with the players. The fans supported me, they knew what the conditions were. I knew I was going to be fired almost as soon as I arrived, from August. It was not Alcorcon, nor the Champions League exit, not that at all. I even thought about resigning during pre-season. Two key players were sold - Robben and Sneijder. We had too many forwards and not enough midfielders. It was not a squad to win the Champions League.”
Such analysis will ring bells for anyone familiar with Madrid’s transfer business through recent years. Rafa Benitez found it difficult to deal with an unbalanced squad earlier this season, and real-life 'galactico coach' Zinedine Zidane faces the same challenge now. Zidane is doing a decent job of it so far, but another season without a trophy will bring more serious questioning of Florentino’s future at the Bernabeu.
There is also another sense of history repeating itself at City, with Pellegrini leaving this summer to allow another ‘supercoach’ Guardiola into his job, even as he is guiding the club to their best ever European season.
Speaking to El Pais on Monday, Pellegrini suggested that his experience from 2008/09 of trying to prepare a team including so many attacking superstars could now be quite useful.
“I’ve no extra personal motivation against Real Madrid,” he said. “But from a sporting point of view, I’d prefer to face Madrid [rather than Bayern Munich or Atletico Madrid], as they let you play. They are always lethal [in attack] and have some vulnerabilities because of that.”
Given all that has happened, it would be quite fitting in many ways should Pellegrini's last act as City coach be to eliminate Madrid from the Champions League, and perhaps strike a decisive blow against the ‘Galactico’ model at the Bernabeu.