Once again, FA Cup could be Man City's sole source of glory this season
Roberto Mancini's instructions when he joined Manchester City in December 2009 may well have been simply "win something, anything at all, to start putting City back on the map." Within 14 months he had delivered, placing the FA Cup in the City trophy cabinet for the first time in 40 years. By the time he'd added the Premier League, City's first title triumph in 44 years, City's place in the new football firmament was well on its way to being secured.
His successor, Manuel Pellegrini, was issued with a different kind of challenge: five trophies in five years. All started well with the Chilean bagging the League Cup and a second Premier League title in his first season at the Etihad. That he only added another League Cup triumph in the two years that followed helped to cut short his stay in Manchester. That he took the League Cup so seriously could perhaps be seen as a way of hiding failure in the Champions League (the club's biggest target) with success in England's third-most-prestigious tournament.
Sheikh Mansour, Khaldoon al Mubarak and the board members at City are having to balance expectations with reality on an annual basis. Nobody said that this would be easy, but as City move toward the end of the first season of their third incumbent under the new regime, time waits for no man, not even a man of Pep Guardiola's calibre.
It is shrewd to be patient in football, even if expenditure has reached levels that make other clubs wince. Chopping and changing have been the slogans at City under previous regimes, with managers coming and going at the drop of a hat. The joke in Manchester in the late 1990s was that City intended to fit a revolving door at the front entrance that would aid swift arrivals and departures from the manager's hot seat. It was always -- and to a certain extent, still is -- the hottest of hot seats at City.
As Guardiola surveys the fallout from his first season, he can reflect on some serious missed opportunities. The League Cup, an easy target under his predecessor's watch, escaped in a tame withdrawal of effort at Old Trafford during the early rounds. That the victors went on to lift the trophy themselves gave Jose Mourinho breathing space as he attempts to turn around the drifting hulk that Manchester United have become.
The Champions League disappeared in a hail of goals against this season's shock performers, Monaco. City's relationship with this trophy has been an uncomfortable fit and it still feels like a bridge too far despite Pellegrini's efforts in his last season, getting City to an unprecedented semifinal appearance. The opportunity to feature in a first-ever final was thwarted by the Chilean's own stodgy, safety-first tactics. Having started his tenure with such bold attacking brushstrokes, City were ending it drawing block diagrams with a single blunt pencil.
There can be few complaints at an exit to an exuberant Monaco side marshalled on the pitch so effortlessly by Bernardo Silva and so studiously off it by his countryman Leonardo Jardim, but once again City have been halted a long way from the final. Watching Leicester attract the plaudits for their doomed yet gutsy exit to Atletico Madrid will have reminded everyone at City not only what is expected of them, but also what can be achieved with a little perseverance.
For the second season running, the league title has been thrown to the four winds. Leicester's win last year may have been a one-off but it was won in a season when the major challengers (City among them) were slumbering on a grass verge. Chelsea have likewise taken City by surprise again this time and even recent stuttering form has left City with too much to do to catch up. City's loss may yet be Tottenham's gain.
So, Guardiola faces the end of his first year in charge with just one option left open to him: the FA Cup. Mancini reached two finals, winning one and losing one, while Pellegrini's Wembley appearances were restricted to two finals in the League Cup. As with Mancini's debut year, the Catalan can put a shine on a season of underachievement with a win against Arsenal at the weekend and success in the final in May against either Spurs or Chelsea.
The cups have represented City's best chances of salvation through long years of inconsistency and turbulence. It takes only a run of seven or so matches to carry it off, rather than the 38-match slog to get over the finishing line in front of the others in the Premier League. Even the Champions League, with its guaranteed income group games, demands at least 13 games before the trophy can be lifted.
All attention now falls on the weekend fixture with Arsene Wenger's stuttering Arsenal. With both clubs looking to the Cup for a season's salvation, an afternoon of typical City nerve-shredding is almost guaranteed.
Simon is one of ESPN FC's Manchester City bloggers. Follow him on Twitter @bifana_bifana.