Believe it or not, but the manager of last night’s Malaga side which exited cruelly at the hands of Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League quarter-finals, has been around a while. Far from a rookie, the Chilean gaffer is verging on ten years at the top of Spanish football but that first piece of major silverware continue to allude him. Manuel Pellegrini; the man who came so near, but yet so far.
By Sam Crocker – @Sam_Crock
If Manuel Pellegrini had gone to a psychic in 2004, shortly before his first managerial job in Spain, and asked for three things that would keep him from potential greatness, he may have been slightly surprised by two of the answers. Jens Lehmann’s outstretched arm would be the first, an outrageous Barcelona team would have been the second, and a Felipe Santana 1-yard tap-in would have been the third. You can probably guess which one is least surprising out of these three, but I don’t think there are many managers in Europe who have come as consistently close as he has to achieving silverware, only to fall before the last hurdle.
A relative nobody in the European scene upon his arrival at Villarreal in 2004, he had managed to catch the eye of president Fernando Roig across the pond for his exploits in Argentina, having just achieved success with River Plate and before them, San Lorenzo. A “one club man” in his time, staying loyal to Universidad de Chile for the whole of this career, his work in Chile, with teams such as the wonderfully named O’Higgins, allowed him to climb up the rungs of the South American managerial ladder before moving to La Liga. Now the second most successful South American manager in the last 25 years of the league (behind Vandelei Luxemburgo), his career in Spain has been laden by club circumstance, excessive demands and the moments mentioned above that make football the brilliant drama it is, making him one of the few underrated managers in the world.
In 2005-06, an unbeaten Villarreal glided through the group stages of the Champions League under Pellegrini’s tenure, leaving Manchester United, Benfica and Lille in their wake as they advanced to the next round top of their group, remaining unbeaten until a 2-1 loss at the San Siro against Inter Milan. Winning the next leg 1-0, thus going through on away goals, people had started to look at the team from the small Valencian province with a sense of admiration. They played out a tight couple of games with Arsenal in the semi-final, with Gilberto Silva velcroing himself to playmaker Juan Roman Riquelme throughout both matches. Losing the first leg 1-0, they had an opportunity to take it to extra-time at El Madrigal when Gael Clichy brought down Jose Mari on the edge of stoppage-time, only for Jen’s Lehmann’s dive to his left to stop Riquelme’s penalty from nestling in the corner of the net. Denied a place in the final, Villareal were met with continental acclaim for the wonderful debut escapade in the Champions League. With a history of lower league mediocrity, limited resources and a humble background, Pellegrini’s efforts to take them so far, and then come so close, can only be praised. Unsurprisingly, Pellegrini’s efforts did not go unnoticed.
Sniffing around in 2009, during chairman Florentino Perez’s Galacticos second coming, the Chilean was hired as Real Madrid manager in what would appear to be excellent circumstances. With €200 million spent that summer, Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaka, Xabi Alonso and Karim Benzema were available for use, making the prospect of managing such a star-studded team mouth-watering. However, there was a touch of Claudio Ranieri under Roman Abramovich when it came to Pellegrini’s spell at Madrid. The quality of their main rivals in La Liga and failures outside of this were not taken well by Madrid’s president. The infamous 4-1 aggregate loss to Alcorcon in the Copa del Rey meant that Pellegrini brought unwanted media attention, not just from the Spanish press but all over Europe, in what was known as “Alcorconazo” locally. An ultimatum was then issued by Perez after their Champions League exit to Lyon, citing the necessity of winning La Liga in order for him to keep his job. Doing his level best, his side broke the record for most points won in a league season with an incredible 96, only to finish second, three points, behind Barcelona.
Ousted at the end of the season for Jose Mourinho, it was generally seen that Mr. Pellegrini’s was not quite a big enough name for the team whose reputation precedes them, as lack of support from Perez throughout the season and the restlessness of the Madrid press meant that he was never really convinced. Up against one of the best club sides to ever grace the planet, and defiling every team that came in their path apart from Barcelona, the fact he managed to save his bad results for the two competitions outside of the league was unfortunate.
And then there were last night’s events, which are still fresh in the memory. Sticking with the club despite the immense changes in finance, the unprecedented achievement of reaching the quarter-finals of the Champions League is phenomenal. Seemingly able to thrive in Europe’s premier competition in the face of adversity, especially after losing Santi Cazorla, Salomon Rondon and Nacho Monreal, Malaga defied predictions and came within a minute of reaching the semi-finals.
Whilst ‘underrated’ is something that is arguably overused with regards to players, it is rarely a tag attached to managers. Of course, underrated will always be a debated concept, as the virtue of being underrated means that at least somebody rates you. He makes little fuss – comparison to his successor at Madridm, anyway – and does his talking on the pitch.
How long we will stay at Malaga? No-one knows. I cannot tell you the wages he is on, whether they can afford him, or indeed whether he wants to stay, but the compensation that could be on offer if another club snaps him up is unlikely to be ignored by the cash-strapped club. If he were to leave, he would be an excellent catch for anyone, such is his ability to work and achieve when the chips are down.
And who knows – maybe next time his luck will give a bit and he’ll announce himself to the world.