Manchester City and Manuel Pellegrini could end season empty-handed
Have Manchester City gone back to shooting themselves in the foot? A beguiling habit that the club built a firm reputation for in the 1980s and '90s seems to have returned.
With by far the biggest, most well-stocked squad in the Premier League, City are currently trailing limply in fourth place, with their tail firmly between their legs after two consecutive home defeats, to Leicester and Tottenham. Not just any kind of defeats, either, but losses to the two sprightly outsiders in this season's fascinating title race.
The odd defeat to Arsenal or Chelsea, the annual sob story against Liverpool and a disaster against old foes Manchester United can all be expected in the normal course of events. This is different, however. Manuel Pellegrini's expensively arranged side has been taken to the cleaners by Leicester and Spurs. In both cases, there was hardly a murmur of dissent from the manager.
Played off the park by Claudio Ranieri's spectacularly brave Leicester side, City then had the chance to atone for that slovenly performance against an improving but beatable Tottenham. Starting as if it was a preseason knock about, City did not get into any kind of stride until trailing 1-0. That the goal had come about owing to a piece of typically poor refereeing from old adversary Mark Clattenburg seemed finally to get the juices flowing.
Anger is often a great emotion when channeled properly. In this case, City upped the ante, equalised through Kelechi Iheanacho and were in the process of pouring forward to confirm their superiority when Tottenham hit them with a classic sucker punch.
Woeful refereeing and a pile of injuries aside, how has it come to this? With Pellegrini on his way out of Manchester and the much-trumpeted arrival of Pep Guardiola supposed to take City to the next level, it is humbling to see the club struggling to come to terms with its current level, never mind anything loftier.
As it stands, they are still in four competitions, quite a feat as we reach the middle of February. However, looked at in the harsh light of day, things do not seem quite as rosy as they should.
Perhaps the best chance of silverware comes in the League Cup final, the fourth priority. What of the other domestic knockout tournament? The club's reward for always taking the FA Cup seriously has seen them forced to play their fifth-round tie at Chelsea on the Sunday before the Dynamo Kiev match in the Champions League.
Pellegrini has been boxed in by a fixture pileup and has already suggested that he will play an inexperienced mix of youth team players and reserves. In other words, the FA Cup can in all likelihood also be struck off the list very shortly.
Playing such a team at Stamford Bridge suggests an emphasis on the Champions League. Why the club is looking in this direction, with the season in danger of petering out, is uncertain. They may be favourites to beat Dynamo but will surely go out as soon as they are paired with Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich or Paris Saint-Germain.
Winning the Champions League is a non-starter and will have to wait until Guardiola gets his teeth into serious squad rebuilding this summer.
That leaves the Premier League, the so-called bread and butter; the No. 1 priority when City embarked upon what has turned out to be a tumultuous 2015-16 season. Although the gap to the top remains six points, the mental mountain to climb suggests it will be much harder than that.
While Leicester and Spurs show no sign of wilting under pressure and Arsenal have managed to keep going way past their normal winter watershed, City appear to be the odd one out; lumpen, disinterested and unable to change their destiny.
It may be tempting fate to say so, but the club with the biggest budget and best squad is currently in palpable danger of finishing this season empty-handed. Nobody would be surprised if they lose to Liverpool and Chelsea in the coming weeks. Nobody is expecting City to travel to the San Siro in May to compete in the Champions League final and few, if any, regard them as anything other than an extreme outside bet at this stage to lift the Premier League trophy.