Manuel Pellegrini's Manchester City legacy remains in the balance
Manchester City's performance in their 4-0 win against Aston Villa on Saturday was about as typical for a deeply frustrating season as you could have asked for.
All the problems, plus one or two of the brightest aspects, were there to see in the 90 minutes of toil and energy against a side waiting to have their relegation from the top flight confirmed.
City's first-half showing against an appalling Villa side was static and stodgy, loose in its passing and ineffective going forward. Slow to react to openings, the passing was flat and sideways, if not backwards, and always delivered at walking pace. It invited Villa on to the front foot and only the visitors' complete lack of ideas and confidence stood between them and a possible if rare point on their travels. City were passive, lethargic and directionless.
So many of the side's matches this season have been decorated with such elements. Look back to the catastrophic defeats at Tottenham, Stoke and Liverpool, where Manuel Pellegrini's tactics were trampled into the grass. Or the home defeats to West Ham, Leicester, Liverpool and Spurs again, where each opponent had a field day. It is no coincidence that both Liverpool and Tottenham have completed tidy and conclusive doubles over City this season.
Then came the second half against Villa, which started with a burst of activity that took City clear from their opponents' clogging attention within 20 minutes. The passing became crisp and was at last aimed forward. The running off the ball was suddenly apparent in its variety and volume. The deft one-touch triangles of possession that David Silva and Yaya Toure have trademarked were suddenly pinging from instep to instep once again. And the goals were flowing too. Two for Sergio Aguero, plus one each for Raheem Sterling and Toure, quickly formed an unassailable buffer between the two sides. It also showed what devastating football City can produce when they choose to turn it on.
This has only been witnessed in fits and starts in a season that has been strange in the extreme. For Pellegrini still to have a reasonable chance of securing his place right in the vanguard of City's greatest managers, despite a season of blundering under-performance, is quite extraordinary. Thanks to the continuing inconsistencies at Arsenal, Tottenham and Manchester United, that date with destiny is still beckoning towards the taciturn Chilean.
City have shown what they are capable of only in brief passages this season. Big wins over Newcastle and Bournemouth in the league and against Hull and Crystal Palace in the League Cup have largely been overshadowed by other poor performances. However, the League Cup has been won and the club's showing in continental action has improved, with the wins in Seville and Kiev particularly impressive.
Clearly, after two title wins in the last four seasons, the club's hierarchy are looking to the Champions League to further their ambitions. It remains deeply frustrating, however, that a squad of this calibre has not been able to put any kind of run together in the league. The current total of 50 points from 28 games is City's weakest return since 2009. The three-match losing streak in the Premier League that came to an end with the demolition of Villa was the worst since 2008.
These are damning statistics for Pellegrini to pack into his bags when he leaves the club in May. Incredibly, things could yet be so different. A thin hope remains that the 10 point gap to Leicester can be hauled in over the last 10 games of the season.
The return match with Dynamo Kiev in the Champions League gives City a reasonably straightforward -- if such a term exists in the club's vocabulary-- opportunity to join the continent's last eight for the first time in their history. A quarterfinal draw against Benfica, Zenit, Wolfsburg or Gent would open the door tantalisingly wide to a European semifinal, the like of which has not been recorded in these parts since 1971.
In short, Pellegrini's legacy still hangs very much in the balance. He has already joined the likes of Joe Mercer, Malcolm Allison and Roberto Mancini in City's trophy-winning hall of fame. The next eight weeks or so will define whether he overtakes these greats or oversees a damp squib finale of missed opportunities and wasted talent.
That the jury remains out at this late stage is curiously apt for a man who has done his work quietly and without fuss, but has never quite convinced onlookers that his grip on proceedings is as tight as it needs to be.