The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION
Manuel Pellegrini restores unity to Man City, wins his 1st league title in Europe
MANCHESTER, England - Thrown into the air by his jubilant Manchester City players, Manuel Pellegrini was a league winner at last in Europe with the skeptics silenced.
"It's a great experience," Pellegrini said after Sunday's title-clinching 2-0 win over West Ham. "It's not easy to come to the Premier League — the most difficult league in the world."
Lifting the trophy on Sunday was a victory for dignity over divisiveness for the composed Chilean, and his brand of attractive, expansive football.
"He wanted us to play attacking, and we've scored a lot of goals this year as well as being tight at the back," midfielder James Milner said. "The players adapted, which is never easy."
It's never easy adapting to English management either, but Pellegrini is the first manager from outside of Europe to win the country's top division.
What must the City fans who greeted Pellegrini's appointment with such abuse a year ago be thinking now?
"You can stick Manuel Pellegrini," was the expletive-free section of the chant that reverberated around Wembley Stadium at the FA Cup final exactly a year ago after it leaked before the Wigan humiliation that Roberto Mancini was to be replaced. City fans were incensed that the manager who ended their 44-year wait for an English title was being discarded for a south American who had amassed titles on his own continent — in Argentina and Ecuador — but failed to win a major honour during a decade in Spain.
Supporters might have been smitten with the suave Italian, but City's hierarchy recognized that Mancini's chaotic reign had to end. Pellegrini has restored unity to the club and avoided feuds with rivals to become this season's dullest manager. Not good news for headline writers but profitable for City, which is now celebrating a domestic double for the first time in its 134-year history.
"Together," read the mosaic formed by fans on seats before Sunday's finale at the Etihad Stadium, encapsulating life at City under Pellegrini.
Beating a struggling Sunderland side in the League Cup final was the minimum required at a club that has benefited from more than $1 billion of investment in players in the six years under Abu Dhabi ownership. For the 60-year-old Pellegrini, who failed to win trophies with Villarreal, Real Madrid and Malaga to match his exploits at home, the hoodoo in Europe was over.
Still, falling short in the Premier League after easily outspending rivals, would have been inexcusable — especially when that will soon lead to sanctions for breaching UEFA's Financial Fair Play rules.
Despite slipping under the radar, spending just 15 days at the league summit, this stylish attacking team was on top when it mattered most as the whistle blew on the season on Sunday. The league position was deceptive for several weeks as City had games in hand to make up, but the team still had to recover from damaging setbacks against struggling teams, and a loss at then-leader Liverpool a month ago.
But it was Liverpool's home loss against Chelsea just two weeks ago that put City in control of the destination of the title. City completed a fifth successive victory to capture the trophy from Manchester United for the second time in three years. No longer is City in United's shadow on the pitch, even if there's a long way to go for the now four-time England champion to reach its neighbour's haul of 20 titles.
With the highest wage bill in world football, City should be embarking on a period of domination, not just in England, but beyond these shores. There has been progress in the Champions League, with successive group-stage eliminations under Mancini followed by a march to the round of the 16 under Pellegrini and a loss to Barcelona.
Few teams are as entertaining as City, with Pellegrini producing the expansive football demanded by the new club leadership. A goal haul in the Premier League of 102 was reached despite coping without Sergio Aguero in February, and for another four weeks across March and April. But while Aguero only managed 17 league goals, Yaya Toure helped to fill the void by netting 20 on top of his influential, powerful role in midfield. Edin Dzeko too contributed 16 goals being third-choice striker, stepping up when he was needed.
Alienating a key player could have proved costly for Pellegrini, but goalkeeper Joe Hart didn't sulk in public and successfully regained his place in the team after paying the price for blundering performances. But unlike the off-field controversies involving the now departed Carlos Tevez and Mario Balotelli under Mancini, this was a season of serenity at City.
"When I arrived at this club maybe the relations between the squad were not in the best moment," Pellegrini said. "It was very important to have calm and try to convince all of them how we can play and how it was important to be very close — all of us, managers, players and fans — to try to win a very difficult title."
They have achieved it inside a year.
Rob Harris can be reached at www.twitter.com/RobHarris
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