Man City boss Manuel Pellegrini must ensure legacy against Dynamo Kiev
Manuel Pellegrini's indulgence of Manchester City's high-end stars at the weekend has echoes of the last time the club came face to face with Dynamo Kiev in European combat.
Having played the youth team in City's 5-1 FA Cup defeat at Stamford Bridge last Sunday, Pellegrini will reintroduce all of City's A-listers in the Ukraine to attempt to ensure safe and swift passage into the hitherto uncharted territory of the Champions League quarterfinals.
Almost exactly five years ago, City had drawn the same opponents in the round of 16 of the 2010-11 edition of the Europa League. Having emerged from a group phase with Juventus, Lech Poznan and Salzburg, City had dealt with the Greeks of Aris Thessaloniki in the round of 32. It was perhaps Roberto Mancini's indulgence of wayward star Mario Balotelli that cost the club further advancement on that occasion.
In a notorious moment just after the start of the second half in the Kiev first leg, Balotelli -- who had emerged late from the tunnel, leaving his teammates to kick off without him -- appeared to have contracted a sudden and debilitating aversion to grass.
"He had an allergy. I don't know what. His face was swollen. I don't know why," Mancini said in the postmatch news conference.
The game itself had escaped City with goals from Andriy Shevchenko and Oleh Gusev, and Balotelli's presence became even more divisive in the second leg in Manchester. With City leading 1-0 and pushing hard to level things up, Balotelli scythed down Goran Popov with a chest high tackle and was red-carded, deflating in one fell swoop City's energetic momentum toward parity in the tie.
It is on these narrow twists of fate that a team's destiny can be decided. Pellegrini himself will be well aware of that as he attempts to prepare his beleaguered side for serious European confrontation. City have never had an opportunity like this one to advance to the later stages of the Champions League.
Perennially hampered by their low UEFA coefficient, City have time and again come up against the continent's biggest hitters, going out twice at this stage to Barcelona. That is Arsenal's unlucky task this year and City will not just be rubbing their hands together to stay warm in the Ukraine.
With Dynamo inactive for more than two months, owing to the domestic winter break, City's match fitness should make a telling difference.
It is also clearly a watershed moment for the coach and a number of his major players. While it is already certain that the Chilean will depart in May, it is as yet unclear which players his successor Pep Guardiola will be dispatching in the same direction. European glory at this level has escaped the likes of David Silva and Pablo Zabaleta while Yaya Toure and Aleksandar Kolarov can expect this to be a last hurrah before the swansong of their careers is acted out at a slightly lower level.
For Pellegrini, the matches represent one of his last opportunities to secure a positive legacy at the club, where he started so explosively. After a trophyless second season, his third and last in Manchester is threatening to unravel. The four-pronged assault on the game's honours has been cut to three and may soon be further reduced, if recent lethargic displays are not improved upon.
Two league defeats at home to Leicester and Tottenham, added to by the FA Cup thrashing at Chelsea, has seen City lose three consecutive matches for the first time during Pellegrini's tenure. In a season that has singularly failed to take off, however, City have reserved some of their best performances and most spirited late flourishes for the Champions League.
The 3-1 win at Sevilla was perhaps the most accomplished display of the season, while late comebacks to beat Monchengladbach home and away and Sevilla at the Etihad, have proved that the spirit can sometimes match the ability. It has not always been that way in a disappointing season for the club so far.
If it seems strange to be saying such a thing with three trophies still on offer in late February, the coach will be aware that there is still time to pull things around. Twelve games remain in the Premier League to close a six-point deficit and Sunday's encounter with Liverpool at Wembley presents the first chance of a trophy this season.
It is, however, towards European glory that City's owners are looking most eagerly and, with this is mind, Pellegrini and his staff will do well to communicate the desire clearly and effectively to the players.
The time for self-indulgence is over and the challenge is clear. Return to Manchester with the tie intact and tipped far enough in City's favour to make the second leg in three weeks' time a triumphant breakthrough in the club's long and winding history.