HEART OF FOOTBALL

Dignified elders facing undignified end to wild season

The prize has gone, the pride has to be played for, and when someone asked Manuel Pellegrini how he would like to be remembered by Manchester City, his response was:

"I'm not dying."

Quite so, but this gentleman coach, and his adversary Arsene Wenger both know that no Italian opera star is going to sing their praises at the Etihad Stadium this evening.

For as much as Leicester City is the romantic story of this and any other Premier League season, the other side of the story is the failure of all the bigger, richer clubs.

Leicester, let it be said one more time, outfoxed the high and mighty. Man City, Arsenal, Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool let them.

On the same boat

Wenger sympathises with Pellegrini's plight as a manager whose team knows he has no power over them. Sympathy, Wenger says, that will be put aside today because it is winner takes all - either City or Arsenal can qualify directly for the Champions League.

But the season isn't yet over, the failure not quite complete.

Man City and Arsenal meet today to contest third place (in Arsenal's case maybe even second). And while that is a missed opportunity to claim the title so wonderfully won by Leicester and so woefully discarded by Chelsea, third is still a crucial aim for billion-pound clubs.

So, no one is dying. But Pellegrini has been a lame-duck manager since the start of the year, when City confirmed that Pep Guardiola had finally agreed to take his job.

Understandably, he - and some of his star players who know they will not be Guardiola's cup of tea - prioritised the Champions League rather than the Premier League or the FA Cup, both of which they had won before.

But when that faded timidly away in Madrid on Wednesday, all that was left is to finish high enough as an also-ran to qualify for the Champions League.

Imagine it, if the ex-Barcelona officials hired by City to put Manchester's light blues into Barca's shoes were finally to get the ex-Barca coach, and hand him a broken team not even fit to play in Europe's blue riband event.

"If you are not in the top four and in the Champions League next season," said Pellegrini on Friday, "then it is a disaster of a season."

So he brings his team home from the Bernabeu, a team dispirited by failure even to get a real shot on target against Real Madrid. A City team again shorn of captain Vincent Kompany, whose recurring muscle injuries have indeed been a disastrous season.

And without David Silva who, similarly smitten by hamstrings and the like, has not been able to be City's magic man this season.

Also without Yaya Toure, a towering influence for City when he was fit, now diminishing by age, by infirmity, and by the near certainty that Guardiola would get rid of him, just as he did when they were coach and misfit player in their Barcelona days.

All these undercurrents await the change of managership, the discarding of a Chilean gentleman whose last match at the Etihad this will be.

As for Arsenal, it is ironic that Wenger has at his disposal, if he so chooses, Santi Cazorla after months of pain and strain for the Gunners without his zestful creativity.

The Frenchman is better placed than most to put himself into Pellegrini's situation. He has known the unique privilege of being Arsenal's manager, and its boss of more than just the playing side of the club, for 20 years. His longevity is unique in the hire-and- fire mania of managerial turnover, but he is blamed for not replicating his Invincibles of 2003-04, when Arsenal went through the entire season unbeaten.

At first, he got away with prioritising the move from the old Highbury Stadium to the huge upgrade of the Emirates Stadium.

The names, the Etihad and the Emirates, tell you how much more money is the name of the game than it used to be.

Some people who call themselves fans cannot support Wenger any longer. They feel he has been too parsimonious and mean with Arsenal's money to spend it on the natural scorer and a decent centre-back that would have made the difference between being top dog, and a mere second or third.

Perhaps they are right. Possibly Wenger trusted too much in Theo Walcott and Olivier Giroud. Walcott has yet to come back to his very best since the Achilles heel injury that is truly one of the most dreadful breaks a man who relied so much on searing pace could suffer.

Perhaps Giroud was, and is, always going to be a selfless foil for a real sharpshooter, which Arsenal lacks. And it looks now as if Alexis Sanchez peaked last season rather than this.

Yet, once Guardiola signed up to City, and not Arsenal, even the celebrity know-alls who want Wenger out (yes, I'm referring to the TV personality Piers Morgan) have not exactly filled the air with their expert selections of who is fit and available to usurp Wenger.

The man himself is 66. He was born two years before Ranieri, who is celebrating his first league title. And Wenger is five years, nearly six, younger than Alex Ferguson was on the day the Scot bowed out with the Premier League trophy.

Sir Alex, you might say has proved a hard act to follow. I'll wager than the Piers Morgans of this world are an awful lot better at stirring dissent than knowing who or what they are asking for.

If there is one thing that Stan Kroenke, the American chief shareholder at Arsenal, and Alisher Usmanov, the Russian who holds most of the rest of the shares agree on, it has been up to now that Wenger has earned the right to decide if and when he goes.

That isn't yet. Wenger sympathises with Pellegrini's plight as a manager whose team knows he has no power over them. Sympathy, Wenger says, that will be put aside today because it is winner takes all - either City or Arsenal can qualify directly for the Champions League.

The loser faces, at best, fourth place. And that means qualifying in the early summer, which affects everything in preparation for next season. And then, surely, there will not be a once-in-a-lifetime Leicester City story.

Not that any of us saw that coming this time around.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 08, 2016, with the headline 'Dignified elders facing undignified end to wild season'. Print Edition | Subscribe