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Copa del Rey final: Manuel Pellegrini leads Real Betis into their first cup final for 17 years

Still going strong after 35 years in management Manuel Pellegrini takes LaLiga side Real Betis into their first cup final for 17 years on Saturday night.

He is at his 15th club, and just as at Villarreal and Malaga he has them surpassing expectations. He regrets not being able to do the same at West Ham.

‘In terms of fan base Betis are a match for Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid and Barcelona,’ he says. 

Manuel Pellegrini is still going strong after 35 years of management and 15 clubs

Manuel Pellegrini is still going strong after 35 years of management and 15 clubs

He leads Real Betis (in green) into their first cup final for 17 years on Saturday night

He leads Real Betis (in green) into their first cup final for 17 years on Saturday night

‘It’s very similar to West Ham in terms of tremendous support that wants them to reach the level of Chelsea, Arsenal, Tottenham, because in terms of fans they are already match for those clubs. With Betis it is the same.’

He is just as proud of delivering great seasons at smaller clubs, than he is of hitting his mark at Manchester City where winning the league was expected and where he became the first coach from South America to do it.

He says he’s proud of his part in City’s rise and admits it never bothered him that he was brought in to pave the way for their current coach.

‘City told me the coach was going to be Pep Guardiola [and] if Pep for whatever reason didn’t want to, because of a sabbatical year or because he was at Bayern Munich, it was going to be me.

At Man City, Pellegrini became the first South American manager to win the Premier League

At Man City, Pellegrini became the first South American manager to win the Premier League

‘The people that were at City had worked with Pep five years before [at Barcelona], there was a friendship there so under no circumstances was I going to feel disrespected if they chose him.

‘I had an offer at the time from Paris Saint-Germain but I decided to go to Manchester City and I had a very good three years.’

Did it not feel strange going there to warm the seat for Guardiola? Especially when there was the chance to go to PSG.

‘Well, first of all the English league is the best in the world. It’s a league that I love and was proud to be part of.

‘And secondly I knew perfectly well that my contract was going to last three years or until Pep decided he wanted to go to City.

Pellegrini was aware he was paving the way for City's desired boss Pep Guardiola (left)

Pellegrini was aware he was paving the way for City’s desired boss Pep Guardiola (left)

‘I never feared that I was not going to see out my contract. We had a very bad run at one point but there was no doubt even then that it was a case of win or I would be gone. I think I picked the right league and the right people to work with.

‘People say I came in with an expiry date but every coach in the world has an expiry date, it’s on his contract! And it’s an expiry date that varies and gets shorter according to results.

‘You value it far more when you are working with people who have conviction and a clear route marked out for the club, as opposed to those who change the coach every 10 games.

‘We got to the semi-finals and I have no doubt that if we had won the Champions League the plan that they had for the club was not going to change at all. Just as after Roberto Mancini won the Premier League they wanted to change the style of football and they made a change.

‘That’s why I admire the progress that City have made all through these years.

The Chilean manager insists it never bothered him that he was keeping Guardiola's seat warm

The Chilean manager insists it never bothered him that he was keeping Guardiola’s seat warm

‘How many coaches have they had? That’s conviction. It’s about believing in what you are doing. Guardiola did not win anything in the first season and I have no doubt that he never thought anything was going to happen.

‘I prefer to work with those sorts of people, who know what it is to run a club.’

Three of the clubs Pellegrini has coached will contest the Champions League semi-finals next week with Villarreal up against Liverpool.

‘When I arrived at Villarreal, and it’s the Villarreal of 18 years ago nothing like the club today,’ he says, ‘they had only just been promoted and were trying just to stay up.

‘We finished second in the league, third in the league, and played Champions League semi-finals. If I had turned up saying that was my ambition they would have locked me up. It would have been crazy.’

One thing has remained a constant throughout his career – a sense of responsibility to entertain.

Villarreal progressed in the Champions League after Samuel Chukwueze struck at the death

Villarreal progressed in the Champions League after Samuel Chukwueze struck at the death

‘My playing career was based on great effort but I noticed that the ones that usually made the difference were the technically gifted ones. So, in my playing systems I have always made that the priority. Sport should be a spectacle for people that are watching on television or going to the grounds.

‘It’s well paid because the television pays a lot so that people can be entertained and not think after ten minutes: ‘this is boring I’m going somewhere else’.’

He has always built his teams around entertainers. In the Villarreal side that lost the Champions League semi-final to Arsenal in 2006 it was Juan Riquelme, now it’s Nabil Fekir the France winger who almost joined Liverpool in 2018.

‘He has more or less free role on the pitch,’ says Pellegrini. ‘He is a very simple guy he doesn’t go about with the fantasy of being the star of the team. It’s been a pleasure to coach him and I don’t understand why he is not at a really huge club because he thoroughly deserves it.’

Pellegrini has built his Betis side around the entertaining France winger Nabil Fekir (right)

Pellegrini has built his Betis side around the entertaining France winger Nabil Fekir (right)

Does Pellegrini tell him that? ‘No, because I don’t want him to leave Betis,’ he laughs.

Santi Cazorla, who he says he tried to take to West Ham, and David Silva are others he enjoyed managing and he says there is a danger in the modern game that tactics now override talent.

‘I think we are very much on that path. I always divide the pitch in three: the first part is for coming out with the ball in the safest way possible, then in the second part of the pitch moving the ball around looking for the spaces. 

‘And then in the last third of the pitch it is about trying to give freedom for players to show their individuality.’

Pellegrini's old-style player card from 1973

Pellegrini’s old-style player card from 1973

It’s a philosophy he’ll stick with until the end of his coaching career. And without wanting to be disrespectful Manuel, when is that going to be? He’s 68 now and has been a coach for 35 years. The old-style player cards with his face on them really do seem from another world.

‘That photo is when I joined [Chilean team] Universidad de Chile in 1973, when I was 20 years old,’ he says. ‘I studied Engineering and I combined that with playing. I think these days no one would be able to do that because the demands are too great.

‘It’s true when you hit 60 perceptions change. You lose three games and they call you old. But I feel very much alive. I won’t retire from football, it will retire me. For now I am happy here at Betis.’

‘The engineer’ was the nickname they gave him when he went from Ecuador to coach San Lorenzo de Almagro at the start of his managerial career.

It was because he was an unknown and they wondered if he wasn’t the engineer hired to finish the club’s half-built stadium.

The name has stuck and lost all its sarcastic connotations.

‘I think engineering has helped me a lot in my career,’ he says. ‘It’s a very precise discipline, and it teaches you to think with a certain logic, and in order of priorities.’

He is building something at Betis and they might have a trophy to show for it tonight.

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