City’s night­mare as United shape to steal their top-four fin­ish

The Daily Telegraph - Total Football - - PREMIERE LEAGUE - Ja­son Burt CHIEF FOOT­BALL COR­RE­SPON­DENT at the Eti­had Sta­dium

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.

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