On February 1, Manchester City were beautifully poised to mount a serious challenge for a third English Premier League title in five seasons. Leicester City led the way with 47 points, but City were just three behind – with a better goal difference – after three wins and three draws in their previous six games.
Manuel Pellegrini and Pep Guardiola, who will be Manchester City's manager in July this year
Tottenham Hotspur were two points behind in fourth place, and Manchester United seven further back in fifth. West Ham United (36 points) and Liverpool (34) were even further adrift. That was the day City announced that Pep Guardiola would take over as coach in July, with Manuel Pellegrini leaving his post on June 30. The timing, with four months of the season still left to play, was certainly odd, but it didn't seem to affect City as they won away to Sunderland the following day.
When the announcement was made, Guardiola's Bayern Munich were running away with the Bundesliga, leading Borussia Dortmund by eight points – 52 to 44 – after 19 games. That lead has now been trimmed to five, with nine games left in the 34-match season. Prior to the winter break in Germany, Guardiola had let it be known that he would not be extending his contract in Bavaria.
If he is to win the Champions League with Bayern – after consecutive semifinal losses – it will have to be this season.
Pellegrini won the Premier League title in his first season, reeling in Brendan Rodgers' Liverpool on the home straight, and then finished second to Jose Mourinho's Chelsea. More importantly, he made City a force to be reckoned with in European competition.
In the two seasons before he took over, Roberto Mancini failed to navigate a path out of the Champions League group stages. Pellegrini, despite being drawn with Bayern both in 2013-14 and the following season, did, and only wretched luck with the draw prevented further progress. Their opponent in the last 16 on both occasions? FC Barcelona.
This year, having topped a group that also included Juventus, a more favourable draw has left City on the verge of the quarter-finals. A 3-1 success away in Kiev means that they are England's likeliest contenders in a competition where the country's stock has taken a beating since Chelsea's unexpected win in 2012.
If you look at those facts, you'd think Pellegrini had done more than enough to warrant a contract extension. But you can't really be too critical of the City hierarchy either. Pellegrini will be 63 in September, and as the club envisage a decade of the kind of dominance that their neighbours once enjoyed, it's obvious that the future lies with a younger man. Guardiola is just 45.
Chelsea in a limbo
Also, once Guardiola declared his desire to manage in England, it was a case of who got to him first. Chelsea were in limbo post-Mourinho, and United still don't have a clear pathway when it comes to Louis van Gaal. Arsenal are likely to stick with Arsene Wenger despite an all-too-familiar late-season implosion. Liverpool already have Jurgen Klopp, and are unlikely to qualify for the Champions League.
It's tempting to say that everything worked in City's favour. But there is such a thing as planning for the future while neglecting the present. In the five weeks since the announcement, City's league form has nose-dived. They did beat Liverpool on penalties to win the League Cup, but the Abu Dhabi royalty didn't invest upward of half a billion dollars to win English football's least significant prize.
There were three straight reverses in the league. The home losses to Leicester (1-3) and Spurs (1-2) were the most damaging, and there were almost no positives to take from a 0-3 thumping at Anfield. A 4-0 home win against hapless Aston Villa has only papered over cracks. As things stand, with a game in hand, they're 10 points behind Leicester, and five behind Spurs. Even Arsenal, who have endured a similarly wretched run, are two ahead.
West Ham and United remain in the fray. For City, failure to qualify for the Champions League, after the infusion of cash, is almost unthinkable. But it could yet happen. The players clearly respect Pellegrini, and understand his methods.
The imminent arrival of a new man, with his own way of doing things, creates insecurity. That's shown in insipid on-field displays. By recruiting Guardiola, City may have secured a long-term future among Europe's elite. But by undermining the admirable Pellegrini, they may just have jeopardised the present.
Dileep Premachandran is Wisden India's editor-in-chief