Manuel Pellegrini may be leaving Manchester City in three months – but he will be leaving as a winner before Pep Guardiola takes his place at Etihad Stadium.
The normally impassive Pellegrini was, by his understated standards, positively buoyant after the Capital One Cup win at Wembley, secured on penalties against Liverpool after the game ended 1-1 after extra-time.
This was a victory of great significance for Pellegrini, not simply in the context of his forthcoming replacement by Guardiola, but also in the light of his selection policies in the past week.
Pellegrini can feel vindicated by success – with a League Cup won and City still in contention for the Premier League and Champions League.
Pellegrini’s big calls come off
The Manchester City manager has faced a week of big decisions – and emerged triumphant after his selection policies came under fierce scrutiny.
When Pellegrini, who has a history of fielding strong sides in domestic cup competitions, selected an almost unrecognisable side in the 5-1 FA Cup fifth-round defeat at Chelsea last Sunday, it increased the pressure on the subsequent big games.
It would not have sat easily given his belief in fielding strong sides in the FA Cup and League Cup, but he felt the greater good was served by that selection before a vital last-16 Champions League game and this Wembley showpiece. And so it proved.
On Sunday night, the usually stone-faced Chilean was smiling as he celebrated his latest trophy after this win over Liverpool coming hard on the heels of almost guaranteeing a place in the quarter-finals of the Champions League with a 3-1 win over Dynamo Kiev in Ukraine.
City have a trophy secured, will surely progress in the Champions League and cannot be written off in the league title pursuit, nine points behind leaders Leicester City with a game in hand.
It means a week that started with the misery, and the selection questions of that FA Cup defeat, ends in triumph.
BBC Radio 5 live pundit Robbie Savage said: “The result vindicated the Chelsea selection decision – the result in Kiev plus playing 120 minutes in this final. With Liverpool at Anfield to come on Wednesday, I think this shows Pellegrini got it right.”
And the embrace the 62-year-old shared with City chairman Sheikh Khaldoon Al-Mubarak demonstrated the esteem in which Pellegrini is still held at the club, despite the fact his tenure is coming to a close.
Perhaps more importantly to this quiet, dignified man, this was a Wembley win based on his personal principles and determination to keep his word to a player he trusts implicitly.
Plenty – including myself – suggested Pellegrini had to ditch his League Cup strategy and drop 34-year-old goalkeeper Willy Caballero, who he brought to City after they worked together at Malaga, in favour of first choice Joe Hart.
Caballero’s shaky performance at Stamford Bridge in the FA Cup offered Pellegrini an inviting get-out clause to depart from his policy, but he said: “I would prefer to lose this final than my word and I had given my word to Willy. My word is more important than football.”
After Caballero’s brilliant extra-time save from Liverpool substitute Divock Origi and his three penalty saves from Lucas, Philippe Coutinho and Adam Lallana, Pellegrini was a winner in principle and on the pitch.
Now the platform has been set for an even more successful farewell.
Klopp’s task crystallised
Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp says his side will “strike back” and that “only silly idiots stay on the floor and wait for the next defeat”.
Defeat will hurt and the German will not buy suggestions that this was something of a free hit because no-one expects him to collect trophies in a season that is largely about transition after succeeding Brendan Rodgers.
Klopp’s mind does not work like that – but this was a Liverpool display that will have crystallised some issues.
What does he do about Simon Mignolet, a goalkeeper who pulled off a succession of superb saves and yet was responsible for the dreadful error that gifted City their goal when Fernandinho’s routine shot squirmed under his body in the second half?
Klopp has faith in Mignolet, a new five-year contract confirms that, but he surely has to consider an upgrade to a keeper who will offer Liverpool more consistency. This may seem harsh after the saves he made – but Mignolet still costs too many goals.
Left-back Alberto Moreno arrived with a big reputation when he signed from Sevilla for £12m in 2014, but he has gone backwards at an alarming rate and now looks out of his depth. This is a priority for Klopp and it is time for 21-year-old Australian Brad Smith, who has impressed when given the opportunity this season, to get a run.
Liverpool lack players of the highest class in defence and midfield. There are too many serviceable players who come in at a rating of 6/10 and too few edging towards 8-9/10.
Daniel Sturridge is one player in that higher bracket but has never proved his long-term fitness can be trusted – and what of £32.5m striker Christian Benteke?
When Liverpool needed a goal on Sunday, it was 20-year-old Origi who got the call from Klopp, not the expensive summer signing. Benteke’s days at Anfield are surely numbered. Klopp’s options with his substitutes were limited by the early replacement of Mamadou Sakho after a clash of heads with Emre Can, but this was not a good message for the Belgian striker.
Klopp is an outstanding, charismatic manager with proven credentials at Borussia Dortmund and his task is to move Liverpool forward with that higher echelon of player, with the support of owners Fenway Sports Group.
At present, he simply has too many average players under his control.
Kompany is different class
It was appropriate that Manchester City captain Vincent Kompany lifted the League Cup after a peerless central defensive performance that underlined his class and worth to his club.
The 29-year-old Belgian has been troubled by injuries this season and his presence gives City an authority, power, leadership and solidity that is absent when he is missing.
In all games in 2015-16, City have won 10 out of 15 when Kompany has played and 15 out of 27 when he has been out. They have lost two out of 15 with him and nine out of 27 without.
Here, he strode about Wembley in a defensive masterclass, showing elegance and also power on occasions when he outmuscled Sturridge.
It was a display that confirmed what City fans, and most others, already know. The club’s chances of adding to the trophy they won on Sunday will increase immeasurably if they can keep their captain fit.
And an added note – Kompany displayed his class as a man as well as a player as Yaya Toure’s penalty slipped low past Mignolet to give City victory.
As his team-mates ran to celebrate with Toure and heroic keeper Caballero, Kompany’s first thoughts were for the beaten Liverpool players, who he made a point of consoling before joining the celebrations.