By Ben Hayward | Spanish Football Writer
Copa Chile, 1986: Manuel Pellegrini, a rugged but accomplished central defender in the twilight of a playing career spent entirely at Universidad de Chile, attempts to head clear after his goalkeeper can only parry a cross against lowly Trasandino. But behind him, seemingly from nowhere, a sprightly teenager climbs higher to head home. Later, the veteran centre-back, beaten by a man almost half his age, reflects that his playing days are over. And so begins a brilliant career in coaching.
The scorer of that life-changing goal was a certain Ivan Zamorano, a striker who went on to grace La Liga and Serie A with Sevilla, Real Madrid and Inter, and formed a legendary partnership with Marcelo Salas for Chile. "If I had known just where he would end up," Pellegrini later admitted, "I wouldn't have retired - I would have carried on for two more years."
After some time out of the game, Pellegrini made his dugout debut in 1988 with Universidad de Chile but stepped down midway through the season to complete his coaching courses. The team were duly relegated for the first time in their history. Significant success came later at Santiago's other university team, Catolica, where Pellegrini had previously graduated as a Civil Engineer. After his playing career, he had envisaged a future in construction, but claimed the Copa Chile and the Copa Iberoamericana in his two-year spell at UC. And when failure to bring the league title brought criticism and ultimately led to his departure, El Ingeniero 'engineered' a move abroad.
|PELLEGRINI'S COACHING CAREER
|Universidad de Chile
Pellegrini was one of the coaches considered by Barca as a replacement for the departing Dutchman, but the Catalans chose Pep Guardiola instead and El Ingeniero joined Madrid a year later; the Chilean was Jorge Valdano's pick as the Argentine returned to the club alongside Florentino Perez - he would be the man to challenge Guardiola's brilliant Barca, who had won it all in 2008-09. And to do so, he was handed the most expensive squad in the history of the club, with Kaka, Cristiano Ronaldo, Xabi Alonso and Karim Benzema bought for over €200 million.
But politics played a part too and others left against Pellegrini's will, with Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben both sold. And humiliation in the Copa del Rey in the shape of a shocking 4-0 defeat at lowly Alcorcon saw the knives out for the Chilean. Marca began a campaign for his sacking and when Madrid failed to get past Lyon in the last 16 of the Champions League, it was all but over.
In La Liga, Pellegrini's Madrid scored 102 goals and secured the best points tally in the club's history, with 96 out of a possible 114 - four more than Jose Mourinho managed in his first season and with Cristiano Ronaldo sidelined for two months, too. But Barca retained the title with 99 and, desperate to avoid losing face following his triumphant return to the club, Perez replaced Pellegrini with the Portuguese coach - even though the Chilean had the support of most fans and the players as well.
So El Ingeniero went just as he had arrived, with dignity and respect. But he later revealed some of his frustrations in an interview with Chilean newspaper El Mercurio. "I didn't have a voice or a vote at Madrid," he said, while also regretting he had been unable to build the side he had wanted. "I can't get anything out of an orchestra if I have the 10 best guitarists but I don't have a pianist or a drummer," he added.
|I can't get anything out of an orchestra if I have the 10 best guitarists but I don't have a pianist or a drummer
- Manuel Pellegrini on his time at Real Madrid
It was a familiar tune at Madrid and, unsurprisingly, the first thing Mourinho insisted would need to be changed on his arrival at the Bernabeu.
Discredited by the press and cruelly axed by Madrid, who waited until the day of Mourinho's arrival to confirm the worst-kept secret in football that summer, Pellegrini decided to rebuild his reputation at Malaga. Investment was in the pipeline but the first job was to save the Andalusian club from relegation. Back at the Bernabeu, he lost 7-0 and before the match Mourinho quipped: "If Real Madrid sack me, I won't train Malaga; I'll go to a big team in England or Italy."
Some 18 months on, however, Pellegrini has turned Malaga into a big team in Spain and beyond. After leading the Andalusians to a fourth-placed finish on the back of significant investment in 2011-12, he has steered the Costa del Sol side through stormy waters following a summer of uncertainty amid debts, player sales and unrest at unpaid wages. Santi Cazorla, their finest footballer, left for Arsenal to raise much-needed funds in August, while striker Salomon Rondon moved to Rubin Kazan.
But still Malaga marvel, sitting just a point off fourth place after 12 rounds of La Liga and in an even healthier position in Europe, proving Pellegrini is equally adept and successful at signing superstars as cutting costs. Indeed, the club's creditable point at San Siro on Matchday 4 (having already beaten AC Milan at home and won their previous two Champions League clashes) saw the Spanish side sail through to the last 16 in their very first crack at the continental competition - qualifying before both Barcelona and Madrid.
Following those achievements, Pellegrini was recently described by former full-back Rodolfo Arruabarrena as the "best coach in the world", a statement backed up by his own sporting director Mario Husillos just last week. And most Malaga fans will surely agree - even if Madrid do not.
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