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Commentary

Guardiola expected to put the pep back into Citizens

At least this time Manuel Pellegrini was spared the panolada, the ritual waving of white handkerchiefs that has long served as the locals' farewell to a beleaguered coach.

It was a tradition he witnessed all too often in his brief and turbulent time in front of perhaps the most demanding crowd - and president - in world football a few years ago but, on Wednesday, the crowd at the Bernabeu were far too wrapped up in tension and euphoria to pay him any notice.

This was a classic panolada performance from Manchester City, though. It did not lack for competence. It did not inspire anger or fury.

The scoreline, a 1-0 aggregate defeat by Real Madrid, was more creditable than many had imagined. It was just that it was all rather too meek - no spark, no real conviction - and in some ways that sums up the desperate disappointment of their final two seasons under Pellegrini.

At Real, he would have been long gone by now. It has been different, reassuringly so, at City, a three-year contract that has been allowed to run its course, but it has been fizzling out for some time and it is as good as over now.

History would have judged Pellegrini very differently had he managed to guide City through to the Champions League final - and thence, even more unlikely, to victory over Atletico Madrid in Milan - but ultimately he never looked like a manager who would give his team the X factor.

This season City have defended well in Europe for the most part, with Pellegrini finding and settling on a more structured system but, in the biggest tests, the creative spark has been lacking.

This season City have defended well in Europe for the most part, with Pellegrini finding and settling on a more structured system but, in the biggest tests, the creative spark has been lacking.

He has led City to a Premier League title, in a highly encouraging first season, and a couple of League Cups, but all too often it has looked a bit, well, meh, as the kids say with a shrug of the shoulders.

And when you have invested as much money and ambition as City have, and indeed as Real had in 2009-10, "meh" simply will not do.

It is strange. For much of the past five seasons, the criticism of City in Europe has been of their tactical naivety, too many times when they have been picked apart by cleverer teams than they face domestically.

This season they have defended well in Europe for the most part, with Pellegrini finding and settling on a more structured system but, in the biggest tests, the creative spark has been lacking.

"Usually we create chances," Pellegrini said, after being informed that his team had mustered just five goal attempts, none of them on target.

One hopes he is aware that City's scoring rate has plummeted over the course of his three seasons.

In the Premier League they scored 102 times in 2013-14. That dropped to 83 last term and, with two matches of this campaign remaining, they are on 68 - more than any other team in the league, yes, but there is a heavy flat-track bully quotient in there.

City are ready for Pep Guardiola - and perhaps, after the frustration of falling short for a third consecutive season in the Champions League with Bayern Munich, Guardiola is ready for them.

Unlike at Bayern, there is clear room for improvement. The only question is whether, perhaps, the task is greater than he appreciated when he put pen to paper in January.

This may sound terribly harsh about a team who, having progressed to their first Champions League semi-final, have just lost out narrowly to Real over two legs, but City are too cumbersome, too short of energy, too short of spark.

A spark is what they have lacked for too long - and a spark is the very least that Guardiola, a man who now improbably has a point to prove, will expect to provide.

THE TIMES, LONDON

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 06, 2016, with the headline 'Guardiola expected to put the pep back into Citizens'. Print Edition | Subscribe