Toni Kroos and Dani Carvajal are City transfer targets; Ronaldo was at United; Bale might yet move to Old Trafford etc... but the link which gives their game with City real edge, ‘morbo’ as they call it in Spain, has scarcely been mentioned and is not on the pitch but off it.
Manuel Pellegrini insists he is not on a revenge mission. He says when he was put in charge at the Bernabeu in 2009, he knew “after just a few games” he would only be given one season and that in any case he was not in charge – which is why he would not have wanted to stay.
Not bitter then, although you sense his sacking and replacement by José Mourinho still rankles. For his former boss, however, the stakes are a little higher.
Florentino Perez is the man who gave us the word ‘galactico’ when he became president of the club 16 years ago, although his original strategy for the club was to combine stars and homegrowns, termed ‘Zidanes y Pavones’.
Pavon is Spanish for peacock, but the one Perez had in mind was not a bird but a player. Francisco Pavon came up through the Madrid youth ranks and was briefly in the first team, though he is now remembered as much for his refusal to claim the dole when he was unemployed, and his statement “there are people who need it much more than I do”.
In fairness, Madrid do have a couple of Pavones in this squad.
Carvajal is one, Jesé another.
But it’s the Zidanes we all know about – from Beckham and Figo to Benzema and Bale, via Kaka, James and Ronaldo (both of them). And this season Perez pinned his hopes yet again on the man for whom he set the world transfer record in 2001, this time as manager.
It would be more than a little embarrassing if Zidane, the Chosen One, were now to be shown up by a man who Perez dismissed in such a summary manner six years ago.
Pellegrini’s sacking is not the worst example of trigger-happy behaviour from Perez. That honour must go to Vicente Del Bosque, sacked 48 hours after the winning the league in 2003.
And Pellegrini’s year at the club became notorious for a cup humiliation at the hands of Alcorcon, a local third division side that almost no one outside Madrid had ever heard of.
Think United losing to MK Dons or Liverpool going down to Northampton Town and you get an idea, but giant killing is far less common in Spain.
Madrid lost 4-1 on aggregate and Pellegrini’s fate may have been determined there and then, even though it was only eight weeks into the season. His fate was sealed when they went out of the Champions League against Lyon: the final that year was in the Bernabeu.
Yet Pellegrini went on to push Pep Guardiola’s all-conquering Barcelona side almost all the way to the league title. Madrid lost four games, but 96 points was the highest total in the club’s history and they scored 102 goals. Ronaldo, newly-arrived from Manchester, scored 26 of them, but he was injured for seven weeks.
Galacticos have never particularly been Pellegrini’s style, although he has had his share of expensive signings at City (and this is a match made for Sergio Aguero). His most notable achievements in the Champions League until now have come at Villarreal, 10 years ago, and then at Malaga, when they were 2-1 up in their quarter-final Dortmund and then lost controversially in added time.
Back home in Chile there is a feeling this could be his moment.
“Manuel Pellegrini’s side come into this match in top form,” said Santiago paperyesterday. “And ‘Los merengues’ arrive with questions being asked about their football and doubts about their formation, with Ronaldo’s fitness the main unknown.”
It would be one of those strange football ironies if Ronaldo’s injury against Villarreal tips the balance.