The Manchester City manager was unceremoniously booted out of the Santiago Bernabeu after just one season and will relish the opportunity to dash Florentino Perez’s dreams.
“I didn’t have a voice or a vote at Madrid,” that was Manuel Pellegrini’s take after he was unceremoniously booted out of the Santiago Bernabeu in 2010.
Pellegrini spent the latter months of his single season in charge under the shadow of Jose Mourinho. The Madrid fans – and their media – had decided by the midway point of the campaign that Pellegrini should go. He had overseen a disastrous Copa del Rey hammering at the hands of lowly Alcorcon, but he was pushing one of the greatest teams in history – Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona – all the way in the league.
In typical fashion, Marca ran a poll that January asking who Pellegrini’s replacement should be. The Special One was the Unwanted One at that point: he earned 0 per cent of the votes.
But as the season wore on, and even as Pellegrini continued to fight Barca, the tide turned in Mourinho’s favour. His defensive masterclass at Camp Nou, when his Inter team shut out Barca on one of the most dramatic nights the Champions League has ever seen, persuaded any remaining doubters that he was the man to come and fight Guardiola’s team on a weekly basis.
Mourinho went on to lift the trophy and arrived at the Bernabeu to much fanfare. He left Marco Materazzi, his captain, in tears as he swapped Milan for Madrid. Meanwhile, Pellegrini was ushered out of the back door. He had won 96 points – a record for a second-placed team and more than Madrid had ever managed previously – but he was shoved out, unwanted and unloved.
“I can’t get anything out of an orchestra if I have the 10 best guitarists but I don’t have a pianist or a drummer,” he said of his relationship with the club’s hierarchy, chiefly Florentino Perez.
Pellegrini has not spoken about his former club too often since then, but it is clear he does not hold fond memories. When asked about Rafa Benitez’s sacking earlier this season, he spoke glowingly of the way City conduct their business, implying Perez’s plans leave a lot to be desired.
There is no doubt that he will relish the opportunity to have the last laugh. Improbably, many at City will regard Madrid as the easiest draw possible, even if their Madrid counterparts think the same about the Premier League club.
Madrid certainly have a happier camp under Zinedine Zidane than when Benitez was in charge, but you would imagine the Spanish coach would have set up a much more formidable semi-final prospect.
This City team are far from perfect but they can hit opponents on the break and they can exploit spaces – their two goals in Paris sprang from interceptions in midfield, as did the move that led to the penalty in the second leg.
Madrid offered up a hatful of chances to Roma in the last 16 and, despite Cristiano Ronaldo’s hat-trick this week, Wolfsburg had their opportunities to score an away goal and complete the upset. Bayern Munich and Atletico Madrid would be very unlikely to leave themselves so open.
Of course, the prospect of Ronaldo scoring a hat-trick is very real, and City will still approach the tie as underdogs, especially as Madrid will host the second leg at the Bernabeu. As City sporting director Txiki Begiristain said himself on Friday morning, Madrid “can be unstoppable” in that situation.
But how Pellegrini would love to bring his old club to a crashing halt. He spent his season there doing his best in the most testing of circumstances, knowing Mourinho would come in and take his job. This year, with Guardiola looming, he has taken his team to the Champions League semi-finals.
If he can get the ultimate revenge over Madrid, he may even get the chance to beat Guardiola over 90 minutes and deny his replacement the European success he so craves. He will not admit it publicly, but how the mild-mannered Chilean would love that.