City’s nightmare as United shape to steal their top-four finish
The nightmare scenario is unfolding for Manchester City. Their destiny is no longer in their hands and a place in the top four, a place in the Champions League next season, can be snatched away from them. And by, of all clubs, Manchester United. The noisy neighbours can be quietened by a United side who have been struck dumb ever since Sir Alex Ferguson retired.
This is not what Pep Guardiola signed up for. He succeeded a Champions League winner in Jupp Heynckes at Bayern Munich but may inherit a team in the Europa League at City.
Boos rang out yesterday. This is not what Manuel Pellegrini, in his last home match in charge, expected either. This charming man might lose out to Louis van Gaal, who appears to lead a charmed life at United even if his future is under severe doubt. Once again, things fell his way.
Pellegrini joked that he had not arrived at City in a Lamborghini – acknowledging the fans’ song about him – but he will have to leave under cover of the night if the “disaster” (his word) of failing to qualify for the Champions League in the season that they made the semifinals is confirmed.
Pellegrini and the City players returned to the pitch 15 minutes after the final whistle for a lap of appreciation and stood in the centre circle before a stadium that was maybe a fifth full at best. It was an uncomfortable moment. Pellegrini looked like he wanted the earth to swallow him up as a video of his time at the club was played on the big screens. He had been given the option of skipping it but chose to go ahead and probably rightly so.
Pellegrini also spoke of three “unforgettable” years but if City are leapfrogged by United, he will have failed despite winning the Premier League in his first campaign and gaining two League Cups. Clubs of City’s resources and ambition cannot accept not being in the Champions League.
“We deserve to be in the Champions League next year,” Pellegrini said afterwards. “We have (been) 37 (league) games in the spot of Champions League and we don’t want to lose that spot. I trust we are going to have our achievement on Sunday.”
City have, indeed, been in the top four all season but can now miss out. There is a big if, of course. If United triumph away to West Ham United tomorrow – in what will be an emotional night for the home side in their final match at Upton Park – and beat Bournemouth at Old Trafford they will finish ahead of City. Even a draw and a win will do if City fail to beat Swansea away.
“Things are now out of our hands but we will find out on Tuesday,” Pellegrini said. “We must keep our heads clean and chins up and try to win our last game. In my time here we have improved a lot in the Champions League. Also, for me, it’s been about our style of play. There have been a lot of positive things but we must qualify again for the Champions League.”
One win against the other clubs in the top eight; eighth in the Premier League form table since the Guardiola announcement was made at the beginning of February and the nagging feeling that City are never quite the sum of their parts would argue otherwise and against Pellegrini. In a sense this game summed up his reign, with City dominant at times, swarming over Arsenal but unable to kill them off.
The visitors also had to shake off the loss of Danny Welbeck to a knee injury which throws his involvement in Euro 2016 into doubt. Jack Wilshere came on and was given more minutes to prove his fitness for England’s squad, but by then goals had been traded in a blistering opening 10 minutes.
Arsène Wenger had declared that attack was the best form of defence for both sides – partly an admission that they are both shaky at the back – and so it proved.
City struck when Jesus Navas chipped the ball into the penalty area, Fernandinho headed it back into Sergio Agüero’s path and, with Mohamed Elneny uncertain, the striker drove the ball low inside the post to score for his sixth successive league match.
By contrast Olivier Giroud had gone 15 league games without a goal but he was presented with one as Eliaquim Mangala neglected to mark him at a corner and he planted his header beyond Joe Hart. Even that corner had been a calamity – conceded by Gaël Clichy as he tried to head the ball back to Hart, only for it to trickle just past a post.
Arsenal’s defensive vulnerability was exposed again early in the second half when Kevin De Bruyne won possession on halfway ahead of Nacho Monreal and drove forward. Challenges melted ahead of him, the space opened up and he struck a low shot that Petr Cech, maybe unsighted, was slow to react to.
Kelechi Iheanacho squandered a chance to wrap the game up and it proved pivotal when, this time, City backed off and Alexis Sánchez made his way forward. Mangala was again caught out and Giroud cleverly played the ball back to Sánchez, who steered his shot home from the edge of the area.
Agüero went close with a volley after a clever one-two with De Bruyne, then substitute Wilfried Bony rattled the bar with a hooked volley.
“Winning the three points [would have been] a good way to say goodbye,” Pellegrini said.
Instead it could be an uncomfortable farewell.
Muted farewell: Manuel Pellegrini (left) waves to the City faithful after Alexis Sánchez had equalised for Arsenal
Manchester City face the prospect of dropping out of the top four for the first time all season on the final day as the race goes to the wire.