Manuel Pellegrini could be Chelsea's compromise managerial candidate
A cup tie doubles up as a job interview. Manuel Pellegrini will be suited and his players booted as they seek to extend their fourfold pursuit of glory against Chelsea on Sunday. Manchester City's prize for victory would be a place in the last eight of the FA Cup. Their manager's may yet involve a rather lengthier stay at Stamford Bridge.
The prospect of Pellegrini joining Chelsea is floated less as a case of everlasting love with a dream partner than the sort of computer-generated match a dating scheme may produce. They require a manager. He is one of only seven to win the Premier League and, for various reasons, each of the other six can be discounted. Some of Europe's most coveted managers -- Pep Guardiola, Carlo Ancelotti, Luis Enrique, Jurgen Klopp -- are already committed elsewhere.
Should Massimiliano Allegri, Antonio Conte and Diego Simeone -- the trio often mentioned as the front-runners -- remain with Juventus, Italy and Atletico Madrid respectively, Chelsea could find themselves casting around in more hope than expectation. While Chelsea have exhausted the supply of potential managers and are now going through them a second time, there is not even a plausible candidate for a comeback unless Roman Abramovich spots Claudio Ranieri winning the league and brings about a remarkable reunion.
Pellegrini can cope with being second choice, as his City career shows. A realist was aware he was no Guardiola. He is not an A-lister, but might be the best of the B-listers.
His initial problem may be one of perception. Pellegrini's deliberately dour persona means he is a man with few enemies, Jose Mourinho apart. While hiring one who had deprived Chelsea of trophies during his time in charge of a domestic rival could prove controversial, he is no Rafa Benitez. He is a less divisive character. His tenure may not be doomed from the off.
Yet unless he wins the league this season, which is looking ever more unlikely, or the Champions League, which seems still more improbable, Pellegrini may arrive with the image as City's cast-off. That may be a deterrent to a club with Chelsea's aspirations. The question is not if he would take the job, but whether they would appoint him.
Pellegrini is 62, but not yet ready to retire. He does not want to head back to South America and has ruled himself out of the reckoning to succeed Jorge Sampaoli, another tipped for the Chelsea post, in charge of his native Chile. He could be a target for the second layer of La Liga clubs and, with his Italian heritage, may be employable in Serie A. None, however, bring the prestige, possibility of silverware or, probably, remuneration of leading Chelsea.
As his time at City has showed, Pellegrini has the credentials of a deluxe caretaker. Chelsea are already benefiting from one in Guus Hiddink. His reign could amount to another regency on the King's Road. Like Hiddink, he is amiable. He does not alienate. Chelsea, like City, have a culture in which the premier players stay as managers come and go. That could continue under Pellegrini. He does not take a hammer to a squad. His inoffensiveness can be an attribute.
It takes a particular mindset to cope with Chelsea's idiosyncrasies. Pellegrini has displayed a determination to ignore everything he has deemed media speculation -- which included the correct reports that the club wanted Guardiola to succeed him -- at City and a similarly ostrich-like approach may equip him to deal with the Byzantine politics at Stamford Bridge. If Mourinho meddled behind the scenes, just as Benitez did at Liverpool, Pellegrini would remain in the dark.
That renders him an owner-friendly manager. He is a company man, one who has stronger opinions than is often apparent, but one who keeps them to himself. That apolitical, uncontroversial approach is married with an attacking brand of football that means his City side could be the division's top scorers in each of his three years at the helm.
He is, in short, two thirds of a chairman's ideal manager, especially one who does not want a coach to dominate the headlines. The final third, however, is the crucial part for the elite clubs. It is where the difference between the world-class coaches and those in the next rank down seems a gaping gulf.
It is most apparent in summit clashes, and Pellegrini has one point from a possible 15 against the rest of the Premier League's top four this season. He has had tactical triumphs in the Champions League, against Bayern Munich, Roma and Sevilla, but they have been outnumbered by failures. Chelsea long had the feeling that Mourinho could outmanoeuvre and outwit Pellegrini. It is perhaps unfair, but the Chilean's victories tend to be attributed to his players. The notion he is a managerial mastermind is rarely suggested. He has displayed a sure touch too rarely when it matters most. It is why he only has two trophies to show for 13 seasons in Europe.
Instead, questions of judgment persist. The signings that Pellegrini advocated most -- Alvaro Negredo, Jesus Navas, Martin Demichelis, Willy Caballero -- have not been startling successes. The goalkeeper can certainly be deemed a failure. In recruitment and tactics alike, Pellegrini has not provided the extra element that can be decisive at the summit of the game. The past 18 months give the impression his players have not always been motivated sufficiently.
The next three present a challenge for a manager whose legacy and future are both at stake. To leave City with a solitary league title and their lowest points tally since 2010 would seem like underachievement, even if Chelsea have no more to show for the past three years and Manchester United less. Unlike fallen rivals, too, City are on course to qualify for next season's Champions League. Yet a job application is rarely submitted with the suggestions that, while things deteriorated on the candidate's watch, they declined further and faster elsewhere.
But, in a sense, that could form part of Pellegrini's appeal. He would not be the best option, but the least-worst available. That is damning him with faint praise, but Pellegrini's problem is that the compliments he attracts tend to be qualified with caveats. It is why, if he ends up at Stamford Bridge, he will be Chelsea's compromise candidate.
Richard Jolly is a football writer for ESPN, The Guardian, The National, The Observer, the Straits Times and the Sunday Express.