Twice City led, with Kevin De Bruyne’s breathtaking second half solo goal looking good enough to clinch victory, only for Pellegrini’s men to twice surrender that lead and hand an advantage to bitter rivals Manchester United in the chase for the fourth and final position in Europe’s top competition next season.
Victory for United at West Ham tomorrow night and at home to Bournemouth on Sunday and fourth place is theirs, regardless of what City do at Swansea.
How will Pep Guardiola react to a debut season at the Etihad spent toiling around the spit and sawdust of the Europa, rather than the glitz and glamour of the Champions League?
And, should Van Gaal end this season with a place in the Champions League and victory in the FA Cup final, how can United countenance dismissing the Dutchman and replacing him, even if Jose Mourinho is ready, willing and able to replace him?
Incredibly, United could even finish third, should they collect six points from their last two games and Arsenal lose at home to relegated Aston Villa next weekend.
“We are not finished the season. If you don’t depend just on what you can do it is more difficult but we will see on Tuesday what will happen between Manchester United and West Ham,” said Pellegrini. “I think we deserve to be in the Champions League.”
City supporters seemed unconvinced by their outgoing manager’s logic and a lap of “honour” ended in embarrassment with barely 5,000 left to bid farewell.
“I was not disappointed in that, I was disappointed not to win the game,” said Pellegrini. “Winning the three points would have been a very good way to say goodbye.”
City packed more attacking intent into the opening 60 seconds than they had in 180 unambitious minutes against Real Madrid in their Champions League exit and were rewarded after eight minutes when Fernandinho headed back Bacary Sagna’s lob forward for the immaculate Sergio Aguero to drive in his 24th league goal of the season.
But, as they have so often under Pellegrini in the two years since his debut campaign ended with a Premier League title, his team failed to hold that advantage and, two minutes later, a disastrous defensive header by former Gunner Gale Clichy almost placed the ball in his own net before it struck Joe Hart’s post and out for a corner.
Olivier Giroud made the home defence pay for that mishap, easily shaking off Eliaquim Mangala and meeting Mohamed Elneny’s corner to power home a header.
There was a moment of high anxiety for Arsene Wenger, and Roy Hodgson, as Danny Welbeck limped off with an apparent knee injury after a collision with Sagna although the consolation was a run-out for Jack Wilshere who had previously managed just six minutes of football this season.
Aguero continued to threaten but a miss by Fenandinho early in the second half suggested it might be another afternoon of frustration for City. De Bruyne had other ideas on 51 minutes, however, gathering the ball just inside the Arsenal half and advancing to the edge of the six-yard box where his right-foot shot found Petr Cech wanting.
City youngster Kelechi Iheanacho missed a glorious opportunity soon after and, with substitute Theo Walcott beginning to make an impact, an equaliser seemed imminent. It duly arrived after 68 minutes as Alexis Sanchez surged forward, received a tidy lay-off from Giroud, and fired past Hart.
Too little, too late, the home side dominated but failed to kill off Wenger’s men. De Bruyne’s dangerous free-kick was cleared by Cech, Aguero volleyed just wide and a thundering effort from Wilfried Bony struck the crossbar.
Hart 5; Sagna 6, Otamendi 5, Mangala 5, Clichy 6; Navas 5 (Bony 78), Fernandinho 7, Fernando 6 (Toure 78), De Bruyne 9; Aguero 8, Iheanacho 5 (Sterling 70, 6).
Caballero, Delph, Demichelis, Tasende.
Cech 5; Bellerin 6, Gabriel 6, Koscielny 6, Monreal 6; Elneny 7 (Coquelin 76), Ramsey 6; Sanchez 7, Iwobi 5 (Walcott 59, 6), Welbeck 5 (Wilshere 24, 7); Giroud 9.
Ospina, Gibbs, Cazorla, Campbell.