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Pellegrini fuels Man City confidence

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Manchester City's consistent form gives Manuel Pellegrini reason to smile.
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Leander Schaerlaeckens

Leander Schaerlaeckens has written about soccer for The New York Times, The Guardian, ESPN The Magazine and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter.

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When he was appointed as Manchester City manager last June, Manuel Pellegrini gamely contorted his deeply-creased face into a smile for the cameras, before letting it settle back into its default frown. The challenge, after all, was daunting.

Chief executive Ferran Soriano had told the press that he expected five trophies over the next five years from the Chilean, who had nevertheless only been signed up for three seasons. And he was to do it with a deeply dysfunctional squad that had come apart under his predecessor Roberto Mancini, who had neither a talent for massaging tactics or egos.

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Yet not seven months on, Pellegrini stands on the precipice of a first trophy, the League Cup. If his Citizens make it through Wednesday’s semifinal home leg and the January 21 away leg against an abject West Ham United, they will head to Wembley for the March 2 final against either Manchester United or Sunderland.

Unfortunately, Soriano wouldn’t count any such silverware toward Pellegrini’s quota, having declared that only the Premier League, FA Cup and UEFA Champions League are worthy. But an early trophy would further bolster City’s already soaring momentum.

After a tentative start, Pellegrini’s maiden campaign in Manchester has been a roaring success. Whereas Mancini’s side bickered and struggled to score at opportune times, in spite of a deep stable of attacking studs, his successor sails much calmer seas and can seemingly command them to score at will. With 20 league games played, second-place City already have scored 57 goals to last year’s 66 in 38 games. That’s 11 more than the next-best team, Liverpool, and 18 more than leaders Arsenal.

The beneficiary of yet another $120 million in player investment, Pellegrini has forged a cohesive playing style, utilizing the considerable technical ability in his squad. Cutting in from out wide or zipping through the middle, City’s midfield metronomes Jesus Navas, David Silva, Yaya Toure or Samir Nasri swish toward the opposing goal where strikers Sergio Aguero, Alvaro Negredo or Edin Dzeko materialize to apply the finish. When it all runs at full bore, as it so often has in recent weeks, they are fairly well unstoppable.

The Sky Blues haven’t lost a game since Nov. 10, winning 11 of 13, and are within striking distance of the Premier League summit, should Arsenal’s suspect depth finally catch up to them. And for the first time in three appearances, they have survived the Champions League group stage, even handing holders Bayern Munich their first loss of the season in any competition. In the FA Cup, meanwhile, a third round replay with Blackburn Rovers is in the offing.

All three of the trophies that do count are in play, in other words. And Pellegrini’s progress in his other assignments has been abundantly evident. Aside from filling up a shelf or two in the trophy case, Soriano tasked him with “progressing our football” and building “a squad but also a football concept and a way of working.”

That he has managed this in short order is rotten news for West Ham. The Hammers are in a bad way: second-to-last in the league. Under the tactically incompetent Sam Allardyce, they are in a relegation dogfight in their second season back up from the Championship. And with just three wins from 20 and a total lack of productive players, they are hardly favorites to survive.

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Their saving grace – and possibly the one thing keeping Allardyce in a job – has been this League Cup campaign. A series of fairly soft draws put West Ham into the quarterfinals, where they upset Tottenham Hotspur, who had just made a managerial change. But a 5-0 loss on Sunday to Championship side Nottingham Forrest in the FA Cup third round with a glorified youth team –debuting five players in a single game – inspires little confidence.

It does, however, suggest that the Hammers are doubling down on this semifinal. But they face mighty City with a biblical rash of injuries while captain Kevin Nolan is suspended. “My hands are tied behind my back every time I see what’s available,” Allardyce told the London Evening Standard. “It’s a disaster at the moment. A total disaster.”

Pellegrini has his own injury issues. Aguero and Navas are out. So are Stevan Jovetic and Jack Rodwell. Still, he is expected to emerge with a strong side – not always a given in the League Cup.

As for potentially winning that first trophy: Pellegrini played coy when the British press asked him about it. “We are not thinking about the trophies, only the present,” he said in predictable manager-speak.

But whether it counts or not, reaching the League Cup final would solidify Pellegrini’s position, while Allardyce would wobble in his.

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