By Ben Hayward | Spanish Football Writer
Barcelona were forced to make a coaching change in the summer, with Vilanova taking time off to recover from cancer and Gerardo Martino brought in as his replacement. But had things been different, instead of an Argentine in the Camp Nou hotseat, it could have been a Chilean: Manuel Pellegrini.
Barca have long admired Pellegrini and kept tabs on the South American during his successful spell at Villarreal between 2004 and 2009. Indeed, the Catalan club considered the Chilean as a potential replacement for Frank Rijkaard as the Dutchman's tenure finally flickered out in 2008.
In the end, however, Barca opted to promote Pep Guardiola to the top job at Camp Nou and, a year later, Pellegrini moved to the other side of the Clasico divide as he joined Real Madrid.
Identified by sporting director Jorge Valdano as the man to lead the second Florentino Perez project at the Santiago Bernabeu, Pellegrini steered Madrid to their then highest-ever points total in La Liga (96). That, however, was only good enough for second spot behind Barca and the team's last-16 Champions League exit to Lyon, plus Copa del Rey humiliation at the hands of Second Division B side Alcorcon brought the inevitable: Pellegrini was sacked.
|PELLEGRINI'S COACHING CAREER
|Universidad de Chile
Many Madrid fans, though, enjoyed the Chilean's brand of attacking football and had hoped the former Villarreal boss would stay.
Instead, Madrid moved for Jose Mourinho and Pellegrini opted to rebuild his reputation at Malaga.
That decision raised eyebrows, but the South American led the Andalusian side to within a minute of reaching the Champions League semi-finals in his second full season (as they lost out to Borussia Dortmund in the dying seconds), despite the sale of several of the club's top players in the summer of 2012.
With Guardiola on the way out at Barca, president Sandro Rosell and sporting director Andoni Zubizarreta contemplated a move for Pellegrini but ultimately opted for continuity as Tito took over from Pep, moving from assistant to the top job.
Yet the Barca board continued to admire Pellegrini's progress with Malaga and when Tito was forced to take time off for further treatment following a relapse late in 2012 and early in 2013, the Chilean was one of the names in the frame as a possible successor if the Catalan coach couldn't contiinue at Camp Nou.
Vilanova returned at the end of the season and pledged to carry on in the job he loved, but behind the scenes, Barca were unsure what to do. Deeply concerned by the health of their coach and keen to avoid a repeat of the situation which saw them left without a senior boss for crunch Champions League and Liga fixtures last season, the Catalan club contacted Pellegrini.
By that point, however, the Chilean was in advanced negotiations with Manchester City and, in any case, Barca were unable to make any promises about an appointment. If Tito was willing, fit and healthy, he would stay.
"There was defininte interest in Pellegrini," a source close to the Catalan club told Goal. "Tito had taken time out and nobody knew if he would be able to continue beyond the summer, but in the end he insisted that he wanted to stay and the club respected that."
So Pelllegrini completed his move to City, announcing a verbal agreement on May 30 and officially joining in June. Meanwhile, Vilanova vowed to continue at Camp Nou. "I feel strong and, if my health permits, I will stay on."
Sadly for both club and coach, however, his heath did not permit and, on July 19, Barca announced that Tito would be stepping down to concentrate on his battle to beat cancer.
|They have an enormous squad with extraordinary players, and back-up in every position"
- Manuel Pellegrini on Barcelona
"Had Barca known earlier that Tito wouldn't be able to continue, Pellegrini would have been their first choice," the source added. "He has great experience in La Liga and his style of football fits with the Barca philosophy - it would have been ideal."
With options restricted in late July, Barca ultimately considered two men to take over from Vilanova: Martino and Luis Enrique. But a couple of the senior players told the board they did not want to work with Luis Enrique and, in any case, their former midfielder was already at Celta Vigo.
Additional concerns over the Spaniard's lack of experience at the highest level and his strong character meant Martino was the oustanding candidate in the end - and he was seen as the ideal man to bond with compatriot Lionel Messi.
Tata, though, had no previous experience in European football and had Tito's exit occurred in May and not late in July, Pellegrini would have been the Catalan club's top target.
"It could well have happened," our source summed up. "Pellegrini loves Spain and the chance to coach Barcelona appealed to him. His year at Madrid didn't end well and so he doesn't feel especially attached to them.
"The Barca board admire him and he may well end up here in future."
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