By Karl Matchett.
Improbably, in a weak and unpredictable Premier League where last season's relegation battlers Leicester City are top in February, the chances of Manchester City reclaiming the title have almost gone.
Improbable because their main rivals have floundered, improbable because of the enormous sums of money spent in summer and improbable because of the depth of the squad-yet Manuel Pellegrini has somehow still managed to find himself three places and six points off the summit. It's a monumental failure on his part to guide this squad to first place, quite comfortably in fact, and now that everybody knows he is on his way out of the Etihad door, Pellegrini's chances of leaving as anything other than a failure are rapidly dwindling.
Having also essentially thrown away their chances of a domestic cup double by fielding a weakened side against a rejuvenated Chelsea in the FA Cup, City now have but two routes to silverware left open for them: the Capital One Cup final on Sunday, and the UEFA Champions League.
Suffice to say, a return of the fourth-choice trophy after a summer outlay of more than £150 million will not warrant too much celebration from the manager if that is all he has to show for the last two years when he leaves in June.
Of itself, the FA Cup team selection was not a bad thing, nor a poor decision by Pellegrini. The FA Cup had become City's fourth priority, but labelling it as such and saving back his players for the European tie against Dynamo Kyiv means he now has no choice: success and progression in the Champions League is an absolute must, yet is by no means assured. City have been inconsistent all season, have clear problems defensively and still don't get the best out of all the attackers they have available.
The Ukrainian side are good enough to make the first leg a very uncomfortable evening for City, especially being on home soil. Over the two legs, City's wealth and position of Premier League title challengers puts them as favourites, but all that tag really does is increase the expectation on Pellegrini to get a result. Of all the sides City could have been drawn against, there's little doubt this tie is reasonably favourable.
With four or five injuries in the squad still, Pellegrini is almost relying on three or four key individuals scattered throughout the team to find big performances and a positive result. If Joe Hart, Fernandinho, Sergio Aguero or David Silva don't show up with an almighty display, where will City's inspiration come from? The players are professional enough to want to win each game in isolation, but will they still be taking orders from a man who is, for all intents and purposes, no longer in charge of their career direction? Can they take on motivation from Pellegrini?
The players will play for the game, for the chance of a title, for their futures under a watchful eye currently based in Munich, but almost certainly not for their current boss. Why would they?
On the flip side of that coin is the manager himself; Pellegrini isn't going to be overly bothered about losing matches at this stage, only opportunities. A win ratio isn't important in the context of future jobs, nor how much impact his substitutions have. In the months he has left at City, all that matters is whether he wins another title, or doesn't.
Make no mistake, Pellegrini might be out the door in June but he still has a motivation to succeed: a personal one, a wish to showcase taking a team into the last four of the Champions League or beyond, something which will show prospective future employers that he should remain in a high profile job next season and beyond.
The Capital One Cup alone isn't going to cut it, and Pellegrini has already blown his chances of success elsewhere.
As things stand, the Chilean must accept that he is in danger of being seen as a man who gets big jobs, who spends big money, but doesn't achieve tremendous success. Given the vast transfer fees spent, a single league title from four combined years at Real Madrid and Manchester City is simply not enough.Â
For his own reputation as much as for the team's ongoing growth, Pellegrini needs a big impact in the Champions League this season or face leaving City an underachiever.