The 59-year-old Malaga coach, who was kicked out of Real Madrid in 2010, is now attracting interest from some of Europe’s biggest clubs
By Rupert Fryer
Manuel Pellegrini has always held his head high. An educated, considered man, the Chilean may not hold the hearts of his players, or his nation, but he commands their respect, something he had earned in 2010 when he left the Santiago Bernabeu for the final time.
He wasn’t the first and he certainly won’t be the last. Real Madrid is unforgiving club. Ask Jupp Heynckes, who was sacked a week after leading the club to their first Champions League title in over 30 years; or Fabio Capello, dismissed eleven days after earning los Blancos their first league title in four seasons; or Vicente del Bosque, a legendary former player and a man who had coached at every level of the club, cast aside as a dinosaur having led the team to two European crowns.
And so for Pellegrini, who received his marching orders after finishing the 2009-10 season second to Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona. His dismissal did not come as much of a shock – despite accruing the biggest points total – 96 – in Madrid’s history, as he matched arguably the finest team in living memory every step of the way.
Marca’s campaign to see the back of him had gathered pace following the club’s Champions League exit to Olympique Lyonnais, rendering his summer exit inevitable. He was never likely to have trouble finding work, however. He won league titles in Argentina before leading then minnows Villarreal to the most successful period in the club’s history between 2004-2009 – finishing as La Liga runners-up in 2008 and coming within a penalty of a Champions League final – left him with enough credit in the bank to carefully consider his next role.
Despite interest from the Mexican football federation, el Ingeniero (Pellegrini is a qualified civil engineer with a degree from Chile’s Catholic University) wanted to build something.
The key to his move to Malaga, he told World Soccer in 2011, “was the intention that the directors had to build a great Malaga and the credibility of the way the club wanted to go about it.”
A year later or so later, after over €50 million had been spent in pursuit of greatness and Champions League qualification had been achieved, that credibility was nowhere to be found. Rumours of unpaid wages and missed – or totally ignored – payments to other clubs began circulating.
The club’s Qatari benefactors had seemingly lost interest, or money, or both. Unable to pay the exhorbitant wages to which the club had committed, a fire sale was expected. Their best player, Santi Cazorla, jumped ship for Arsenal, and star striker Solamon Rondon joined Rubin Kazan as the cost-cutting began in earnest.
The game had changed. His sugar daddy nowhere in sight, Pellegrini’s net spend dropped from the highest in Spain last season to zero this campaign. Javier Saviola and Manuel Iturra arrived on free transfers, while Roque Santa Cruz and later Diego Lugano and Vitorino Antunes joined on loan.
You see, Pellegrini is a man to be trusted with money. Cuprum, Chile’s premier retirement investment funds company, certainly think so: he’s long been the face of their advertising campaign – appearances which have also appeared to further alienate him from Chile’s football family, serving to remind the working classes that while he should be respected, he’s just not one of them.
But perhaps that is where his true strength lies. Malaga have needed a calm head to steady the ship through waters so choppy the club are still unsure if they will even be allowed to compete in the Champions League should they beat Real Sociedad and Valencia into Spain’s top four.
“Malaga are the sensation of the Liga season and Pellegrini has demonstrated his natural talent for managing a dressing room,” says Goal.com‘s Adrian Boullosa. “Pellegrini is a sergeant who does not have to shout. The players respect him and appreciate his effort.”
Following all the off-the-pitch turmoil that has surrounded the club this season, that they sit fifth in La Liga with nine rounds to go and have made it to the quarter-finals of the Champions League in their debut season in the competition speaks volumes of the job the 59-year-old has done. It also tells you exactly why the likes of Manchester City and Chelsea are paying such close attention, with City in particular thinking he may be the man to take the Citizens that one step futher in Europe.
“Nobody gave us a chance at the start,” he said on Tuesday ahead of his side’s clash with Borussia Dortmund. “The merits this season have been won out on the pitch.” And they’ve been orchestrated from the dugout.
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