March 13, 2014 4:34:13 pm
A few weeks ago, talk of an unprecedented Manchester City quadruple was doing the rounds with Manuel Pellegrini’s side in seemingly unstoppable form on all fronts.
After Wednesday’s 2-1 Champions League last 16 defeat in Barcelona, which sealed a 4-1 aggregate loss, the dream of a bumper springtime bounty for City is fading before their eyes.
The League Cup they won at Wembley earlier this month with an unconvincing defeat of Sunderland was supposed to be an appetiser for the feast to come.
Now, with the Champions League and FA Cup gone and Chelsea storming nine points clear in the Premier League, there is a growing feeling it might be their only silverware this season.
That would represent an anti-climax for a City side that earlier this season was being lauded for playing the best football throughout Europe.
City’s Abu Dhabi owners have invested hundreds of millions of pounds into turning the once under-achieving club into a major European force but six years after they opened the cash tap there is clearly still a long way to go.
Reaching the business end of the Champions League – the quarter-finals and semi-finals as a minimum – is the benchmark for a club with ambitions of continental grandeur.
That is why Pellegrini, who did just that with unfashionable Villarreal and Malaga in Spain, was hired to replace Roberto Mancini, who could not even get City out of the group phase of the blue riband competition.
At least Pellegrini fared slightly better as City finished runners-up to holders Bayern Munich in their group – beating the German side away before Christmas.
The draw for the last 16 was not kind, although with cracks appearing in the once all-conquering Barcelona side City were expected to push the Catalans all the way.
As it turned out they bowed out meekly, producing a tame performance at home when losing 2-0 and never seriously threatened a fightback in the Nou Camp, where they had Pablo Zabaleta sent off shortly after Lionel Messi had put Barca ahead on the night to effectively kill the tie.
City’s captain Vincent Kompany said after the defeat on Wednesday that City would be stronger next season.
But the notion that City are slowly growing into the Champions League as if they were a collection of raw youngsters is beginning to wear a little thin.
At this rate they will take another four seasons to make a serious challenge when, in reality, they already have a capable squad that is the envy of any club in the world, barring perhaps Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern.
City’s assistant Ruben Cousillas faced the media on Wednesday with Pellegrini suspended by UEFA after criticising the referee in the first leg defeat to Barcelona.
He tried to shed a positive light on a disappointing exit, saying the season had already been successful and that their European demise would mean they will now concentrate all their efforts on hauling in Chelsea in the Premier League. They have three games in hand of Jose Mourinho’s side.
“We’ve been at the club only for eight months so our project is only in its early stages,” the Argentine said.
“We’ve won our first title already. Until last weekend we were the only team playing in all four competitions – something which is very hard to accomplish because of the amount of games you have to play.
“We work for a big club, a club which gives us the best tools to work. We know the responsibility we have and we know how important it is to win the Premier League,” he added.
“Today the team proved that it’s improving and going back to a good level after a difficult period in February.
“We showed that we are alive and we’re going to fight for the Premier League and, like I said, our project is long term.”
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