Manchester City: 4th
FA Cup: Round Five
Capital One Cup: Winners
Champions League: Semi-finals
There was a degree of surprise when Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini signed a contract extension to remain at the club for a third season, where there was a great determination emanating from the top to atone for a trophyless 2014-15, as well as reaching the latter stages of the Champions League. In the final reckoning both of those targets were met, but regardless of that Pellegrini’s days were always numbered.
That was confirmed by the man himself in a sudden annoucement at the beginnong of February, revealing during a press conference amid considerable speculation that Pep Guardiola would take his place in the summer of 2016. The aim now was to go out in style, although the Chilean still left with the jury still out over whether his time at the Etihad Stadium was a success in the context of City’s spending power and ambitions going forward.
The last six matches of the previous season had ended in victory, but it was clear that they were in need of reinforcements during the summer transfer window. And they certainly spent big, paying over the odds for wantaway Liverpool winger Raheem Sterling and splashing more cash on defender Nicolas Otamendi, midfielder Fabian Delph, and playmaker Kevin de Bruyne.
As it turned out only the Belgian represented great value for money, but it was the old guard who led City to a scintillating start as won each of their first five games in imperious fashion without conceding a goal. This run included a 3-0 beating of defending champions Chelsea and saw top performances from captain Vincent Kompany, Fernandinho and Sergio Aguero.
Even the seemingly desperate ploy of bringing on an untried youngster in Kalechi Iheanacho paid off as he grabbed the winner at Crystal Palace. With the club sitting pretty at the top of the Premier League and many of the sides tipped to challenge them making inauspicious starts, many already began to predict that a third title in five lay in wait.
But then it all began to go wrong. A strong performance at home to West Ham United was in vain as they lost 2-1, before they were picked apart away to Tottenham and suffered a heavy defeat. That is when the doubts began to creep in over a perceived lack of leadership resulting from an injury to Kompany, who went on to be plagued by calf trouble all season, so Otamendi’s hefty price tag of £32m soon came under the spotlight.
A strong October which began with 11 goals scored in two home wins restored belief as Aguero was at his best in front of goal and de Bruyne settled in seamlessly, quickly establishing himself as an invaluable member of the team. It had become a close battle at the top with Arsenal and surprise package Leicester City, and they soon lost ground as a disappointing draw at Aston Villa was followed by a thumping at home by Liverpool.
Soon after it was the turn of Stoke City to play them off the park, and then results were inconsistent over the festive period as a return of one point from a possible six against who at the time were their two main title rivals intermixed with wins over Sunderland and Watford. In the middle of all of that, they managed to finish top of a difficult Champions League group, raising hopes that they could go deeper into the knockout stages than ever before.
The turn of the year brought the semi-finals of the Capital One Cup against Everton, and after a hard-fought battle over the two legs it was City who made it through in controversial circumstances to face Liverpool in the final. A lot happened – including confirmation of Guardiola’s impending arrival – between then and that Wembley showdown, as they lost severe ground in the Premier League title race to the extent that their hopes looked all but over.
Two successive home defeats against title rivals put paid to realistic hopes of regaining the crown as collective jaws hit the floor across the country when Leicester destroyed them on their own turf, before Tottenham emerged victorious when the sides met a week later. No away wins since September meant that the priority now was to make absolutely sure of a place in the top four.
So to the Capital One Cup final and City had the better of things for long periods but only had one goal to show for it, and were punished by a Liverpool side who took it all the way to penalties. However, stand-in goalkeeper Willy Caballero excelled as he saved three kicks in the shootout to become an instant hero and end the wait for another piece of silverware.
Progress beyond the last 16 of the Champions League was sealed with a comfortable win over Dynamo Kiev, and they went on to face Paris St. Germain, the dominant force in French football. A 2-2 draw in the first leg gave them a real chance in the second leg, and it was one they made the most of as the wonderful de Bruyne sent the into the last four.
Pellegrini was now clearly prioritising European matches and it left room for error domestically. It reached the stage when they were clinging to a place in the top four, and the embarrassing possibility that Guardiola would inherit a side that would inexplicably competing in the Europa League. That threat looked no more real than it did after the home draw with Arsenal, which gave bitter rivals Manchester United the chance to overtake them by winning their last two games.
Fortunately for City that did not happen and they got the point they needed at Swansea City on the final day to edge it on goal difference. By then their Champions League hopes had been ended by Real Madrid, who, after a goalless first leg had just about too much for them in the second, although a reluctance to attack with any great intent held Pellegrini’s men back. It was a wimpish way to exit the competition, but great strides had been made in competing with Europe’s elite.
So the forever dingnified and personable Pellegrini left with plenty of reasons to look back on his time at the club with fondness. His final season was a challenge as league form almost totally deserted them, but there were positives including the impact of de Bruyne and the incredible emergence of Iheanacho, who displayed a sharp eye for goal throughout the season and left nobody in any doubt as to his potential. But the Guardiola reign starts now, and it promises a lot.
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