Manuel Pellegrini insists he is having no problems motivating his Manchester City players.
Pellegrini’s side have lost three of their four games since it was announced he would be leaving at the end of the season to make way for Pep Guardiola.
Sunday’s 5-1 FA Cup defeat at Chelsea should be viewed in a different context because City fielded an under-strength side but the previous two losses to Leicester and Tottenham were damaging to Premier League title hopes.
City now need to pick themselves up as their Champions League challenge resumes with the first leg of their last-16 tie at Dynamo Kiev.
Speaking in the Ukrainian capital, Pellegrini said: “No, really that is not a problem. All the players from the start, they are just thinking in this season – that we have important challenges from now until the end of the year, and the best way is to be focused in every game.
“Now it is the Champions League, after that we have the (League Cup) final at Wembley on Sunday, and on Wednesday we will return to the Premier League.
“So it’s very easy because we are focused on having a season that works this year.”
Pellegrini has received heavy criticism for the side he selected at Stamford Bridge, which featured six teenagers and five players making their full debut, but he has no regrets.
He said: “Unfortunately for us, we have to make a difficult decision against Chelsea, but it was the only clear decision we had to make in this moment. If we had a completely fit squad, then a lot more experienced players could have played that game, but that was not the case. We had to take a chance but this (Champions League) is absolutely different.”
As senior stars return, Pellegrini hopes his side soon slip back into gear against a side that has not played competitively since December 9.
He said: “The important thing for our players is to have a good performance, we know it’s 180 minutes – it’s just the first leg – so we know it’s the performance is important.”
The game at Kiev’s Olimpiyskiy National Sports Complex will take place in front of a full crowd after sanctions ordering the game to be played behind closed doors were lifted.
Kiev were initially ordered to play two games at a closed stadium, for offences including the racist behaviour of fans, but successfully appealed against the severity of the ruling, meaning supporters can now attend.
Pellegrini said: “One of the worst things you can do is play in an empty stadium without fans. In this case, fans of Kiev have a lesson about what happened.
“For me, I know maybe for the home team it’s not advantage to play without fans, but for football it’s important. I hope in this case it will be a lesson for these fans and tomorrow we have a normal game.”
Central to Dynamo’s hopes of beating the Premier League side will be winger Andriy Yarmolenko who has admitted he sees this game as a chance to put himself in the shop window.
Yarmolenko rejected move to China which would see him earn more than A. Teixeira - €12 million euros.— FutbolUkraine (@FutbolUkraine) February 18, 2016
Pure class. pic.twitter.com/G01P6ip4Ti
Yarmolenko has forever been linked with a move west after emerging in the Dynamo side aged 18 and going on to become a regular for club and country.
Arsenal, Liverpool and Everton have all maintained interest in the Ukraine international who, at the age of 26, may now feel the time is right to make the plunge and sign for a club in one of Europe’s more high-profile leagues.
He said, “I would certainly like to prove myself at the highest level. I watch the Premier League and La Liga regularly as they are the best leagues in Europe in my opinion. Although I have to say that English football holds the biggest attraction for me.
“Playing for such big crowds is what every player dreams about. I would like to do that week in and week out. It would be great to step into a stadium like that every three or four days.”
Lionel Messi left Arsenal spellbound as the Barcelona striker’s clinical double sealed a 2-0 last 16, first leg victory that put the Champions League holders firmly on course for the quarter-finals on Tuesday.
Barca coach Luis Enrique joked this week that all he needed to do was shout ‘Abracadabra’ for Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez to deliver the kind of magic display that would bewilder the Gunners.
On this occasion, it was Messi who answered his coach’s call with a second-half brace as the Spanish champions survived a stern examination from Arsene Wenger’s side to escape the Emirates Stadium with a result likely to condemn the hosts to a sixth successive last-16 exit.
The leaders of La Liga, chasing a sixth European Cup triumph, are now unbeaten in 33 games in all competitions — a blistering streak that includes 14 wins from their last 15 games.
After being dazzled by Messi’s magic wand, it will take an act of astonishing escapology for Arsenal to go through in the return leg at the Camp Nou on March 16.
Aware that Arsenal’s refusal to curb their attacking instincts had left them fatally vulnerable in the Champions League knockout stages, Wenger set out to stifle Barca with a cautious game-plan.
Nacho Monreal had clearly taken Wenger’s words to heart and he earned an early booking for chopping down Ivan Rakitic.
But there was more than just mindless muscle to Arsenal’s approach.
Aaron Ramsey sent Mesut Ozil clear down the left edge of the penalty area with an exquisite backheel and then raced onto the German’s return pass for a powerful shot that was blocked by the visitors.
Only a last-ditch block denied Hector Bellerin, with the rebound falling to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, whose scuffed close-range shot was straight at Barca goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen.
But with half-time looming, Barca, refusing to be hounded out of their stride, finally escaped Wenger’s tactical straitjacket.
An opening goal should have followed when Dani Alves met Sergio Busquets’ pass with a volleyed cross that Suarez headed wide with only Petr Cech to beat.
Completely anonymous in the first half, Neymar underlined Barca’s renewed sense of purpose immediately after the interval with a surging run past Bellerin onto Andres Iniesta’s astute pass.
The Brazilian should really have scored, but Cech came to Arsenal’s rescue as he raced off his line to save.
Olivier Giroud rose above the Barca defence to meet Ozil’s cross with a header that ter Stegen brilliantly clawed away.
Messi had never scored against Cech in six encounters with the Arsenal goalkeeper during his time at Chelsea.
But the Argentine did have six goals in his four meetings with Arsenal and he extended his mastery over the Gunners in the 71st minute.
In the blink of an eye, Neymar turned defence into attack as he seized on a clearance, flicked a pass to Suarez on the left and sprinted onto the return ball.
For virtually the first time all night, Arsenal had left themselves exposed and Neymar slipped a pass to Messi, who was left all alone to plant an emphatic finish past Cech.
Arsenal sealed their own fate in the 84th minute when substitute Mathieu Flamini, exposed by Per Mertesacker’s sloppy clearance, conceded a penalty with a crude challenge on Messi, who picked himself up to slot home from the spot.
Elsewhere, super-sub Stefano Sturaro came off the bench to hit a late equaliser in a 2-2 draw with Bayern Munich as outclassed Juventus rescued their Champions League last 16 tie.
Bayern dominated throughout a one-sided encounter at a packed Juventus Stadium and took a 43rd minute lead through Thomas Mueller.
Arjen Robben doubled the Germans’ lead on 55 minutes but the 2013 champions paid for a series of earlier misses when Paulo Dybala netted on the hour and Sturaro hit a dramatic leveller 14 minutes from time.
It leaves the tie delicately poised, although on this performance Pep Guardiola’s men will be favourites to secure their last eight place after the second leg in three weeks’ time.
Luis Enrique will be waving his magic wand over his much-lauded attacking trio when Barcelona take on Arsenal tonight.
The reigning European champions head to north London having won 16 of their last 18 games in all competitions and with their front three of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar already scoring 91 goals between them this season.
Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger labelled Barcelona as not far from perfect when addressing the media ahead of the game – calling the three-pronged attack a collection of “top, top class” players.
And Enrique, looking to mastermind a first win for the Catalan giants at the Emirates Stadium, says he only has to say the magic words to get his wish from his star names.
“I tell them ‘abracadabra’ and the magic sparks – that is all I do!” he said. “I always work really hard and I always had the chance to have plenty of good strikers in my squad, it is quite simple, quite easy.
“In some situations you don’t even have to wish what you would like them to do, they already do it. We have to work hard so our midfielders can give them the ball.
“We all have the same targets and we know how difficult it is to achieve those targets. I’m delighted with those three and also with the squad.
“I have three great players, they are the chosen ones, they are eager to win and every two or three days they have new motivation. I see them training and I’m delighted to be their manager.”
Midfielder Ivan Rakitic is one of the players tasked with feeding the ball to Messi, Suarez and Neymar to allow them to set about bamboozling defences. The Croatia international likened his team-mates to children playing the sport – given how much joy having a ball at their feet gives them.
“We are really happy about having those three in our squad,” he said. “It makes you really proud and I wouldn’t say that they never rest or they never stop playing in a game, I would say that if they didn’t play they wouldn’t like it.
“They are like children playing football and it would be like taking the ball away from them (to rest them). We must try to help them be better, those three players make us a different team and hopefully they make us better.
“We have to focus on what we do and we are really delighted to play with Messi, Suarez and Neymar.”
Meanwhile, Arsene Wenger will look to ensure Arsenal do not concede an away goal – saying he would settle for a second stalemate in a matter of days.
The Gunners boss has always been an advocate of attacking football but that philosophy has seen his side endure a torrid run in the knockout stages of the competition as they have not got past the round of 16 for the past five years.
During that time Arsenal have made life hard for themselves by losing the first legs to AC Milan, twice to Bayern Munich and then to Monaco last year.
In facing holders Barcelona, Wenger knows his team are coming up against the strongest attacking team in world football and goes into the tie on the back of a goalless FA Cup fifth-round draw at home to Championship club Hull.
While that result left fans trudging out of the Emirates at the weekend, Wenger would embrace another 0-0 draw tonight.
“I think we will score tomorrow so I am not too much concerned,” he said.
“But it’s true that recently our goals have dried up a bit and we have to get that going again.
“I am more concerned tomorrow about stopping them from scoring because you can say even at home in the Champions League that 0-0 is not a bad score.”