Manuel Pellegrini will leave Malaga at the end of this season, with Manchester City his likely destination according to reports, and the Chilean must feel he deserves a change of fortune after the trials and tribulations of the past year.
On being relieved of his duties as Real Madrid boss in May 2010, despite finishing runners-up to Barcelona with a record 96 La Liga points in his 11 months in charge, Pellegrini was persuaded to join Malaga six months later with the promise of substantial investment from owner Sheikh Abdullah Al-Thani. It was a pledge that was initially fulfilled and resulted in a fourth place finish in May 2012 and subsequent Champions League qualification for the first time in Malaga’s history.
Events since then, however, have conspired to test the 59-year-old’s resolve to the limit, a challenge he has risen to with a professionalism that has seen him regain the respect and admiration he earned in a successful spell with Villarreal between 2004 and 2009.
Al-Thani, who had previously stumped up around €60m in summer 2011 to assemble a squad containing big names such as Santi Cazorla, Joaquin Sanchez, Jeremy Toulalan and Nacho Monreal, abruptly withdrew his financial backing 12 months later for no apparent reason and with no explanation – something that has still not been clarified. As a result Malaga had to sell Cazorla, Jose Salomon Rondon and Joris Mathijsen just to keep the club afloat during a turbulent prelude to the 2012-13 campaign.
There were also problems with money owed to players from the previous season – this was not resolved until last December – and also to other clubs for transfer fees, plus an outstanding tax bill. At Malaga’s pre-season training base in Campomar, Pellegrini was then forced to intercede on the players’ behalf and in his typical, unflappable style succeeded in uniting what was swiftly becoming a disgruntled group.
Indeed, matters still needed to be sorted out on the pitch and the departed players replaced, so Pellegrini brought in Roque Santa Cruz and Javier Saviola, who some may have considered past their best, and the previously unknown Manuel Iturra. They were signings that did not exactly placate the supporters, who were already beginning to have a sense of foreboding despite assurances from within the club that all was well, but they proved a masterstroke by Pellegrini.
With Al-Thani still remaining tight-lipped as to his intentions, it was left to Pellegrini to steady the ship and his team reacted in magnificent style with a five-game unbeaten start to the season. He even introduced 16-year-old Fabrice Olinga for the opener at Celta Vigo, the youngster responding by scoring the game’s only goal to become La Liga’s youngest-ever goalscorer. The Champions League proved a similar story, a tricky qualifier against Panathinaikos negotiated before Malaga topped a group containing Milan, Anderlecht and Zenit St Petersburg, remaining unbeaten against all the odds in the their debut season in the competition.
It was testament to Pellegrini’s ability to get the best out of what appeared to most pundits to be a limited bunch of players, continuing to use a tactical system and possession style of football that was so pleasing on the eye. In particular, gifted youngster Isco was having a terrific time employed in a free role, Pellegrini instructing the other midfielders to get the Malaga-born player on the ball as much as possible, with Santa Cruz and Saviola also chipping in with some important goals.
Despite qualification for the Last 16 of the Champions League, there were further setbacks for ‘The Engineer’– as Pellegrini is nicknamed due to his civil engineering background – when Spanish international left-back Nacho Monreal departed for Arsenal in January. Added to this was a UEFA ban from European competition inflicted one month earlier due to unpaid debts and money owed, which is still subject to appeal.
The absent Al-Thani continued his self-imposed exile and maintained his awkward silence, apart from some incoherent Twitter ramblings, whereas the Coach was once more forced to pick up the pieces. Pellegrini insisted he was still in touch with the owner, although nobody else had the faintest idea what Al-Thani’s future intentions were, and his man-management skills were again brought to the fore. Experienced defender Martin Demichelis voiced the players’ fears over their own and the club’s future after another delayed payment, yet it did not stop Pellegrini inspiring the Costa del Sol outfit to a Champions League quarter-final tie with Borussia Dortmund after overcoming Porto 2-1 on aggregate.
Borussia ultimately proved a hurdle too far thanks to some incredibly cruel refereeing decisions as the unfashionable Costa del Sol outfit went down 3-2 at Signal Iduna Park, but Pellegrini’s dignified and measured response to the disappointment showed the calm and unruffled approach he has demonstrated, at least outwardly, all season.
What is apparent is that Pellegrini’s tactically astute and composed manner revitalised a club that was going in the wrong direction at the start of the season. To get the players back onside after months of non-payment of wages was clearly no mean feat for any Coach, particularly since Pellegrini himself was one of those owed money, and the way in which he cemented a close relationship with his squad has to be admired.
Quite where Malaga are headed from this point onwards is anyone’s guess, but it seems that the biggest winner to emerge from a difficult situation, both on and off the pitch, has been Manuel Pellegrini, who could now be destined for even greater things.