Harmony reigns as Ancelotti and Real Madrid proves a winning combination
Even Carlo Ancelotti, the calm and carefree Italian, whose return to Real Madrid has been as harmonious as it has been successful, will get the jitters before Saturday’s Champions League final against Liverpool.
No manager has reached as many Champions League finals as Ancelotti’s five, with the 62-year-old winning three of his previous four, the first with AC Milan almost two decades ago, back in 2003.
But experience has not made the build-up to the biggest games any easier.
“The most stressful moment is always in the three or four hours before the game. It’s a physical thing and I’ve struggled with it a bit more this season,” Ancelotti said at a press conference on Tuesday, a smile coming across his face.
“There is a lot of sweating, the heart beats faster and those negative thoughts creep in. Believe me, there is no tablet or medicine you can take. You just have to put up with it.”
As Ancelotti spoke, journalists laughed and shortly after, the players laughed too, Ancelotti beginning his training session at Valdebebas with a short speech, the squad huddled round, applauding as it finished.
“For now it’s about enjoying it,” said Ancelotti. “We are calm, they are calm. Everyone is happy, there is a good atmosphere.
“As we get closer to the match there will be all the other things, some nerves, which is all very normal. Today it’s just about really looking forward to playing in another final.”
Ancelotti’s ability to manage and motivate players means his tactical nous perhaps get overlooked.
Real Madrid won La Liga with four games to spare, finishing 13 points ahead of Barcelona. In the early months, Ancelotti successfully fixed Madrid’s defence, which had been ripped apart after the departures of Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane.
– ‘Motorbike’ Vinicius –
He found a way of playing that unleashed Vinicius Junior, the 21-year-old Brazilian, who he said had “a motorbike in his boots” and who this season has been one of the deadliest forwards in the world.
He unashamedly played deeper, which suited Vinicius and Karim Benzema on the break, and accommodated a classy but ageing midfield.
“(Jurgen) Klopp and (Thomas) Tuchel, the German school of tactics, they have brought more intensity in recent years,” Ancelotti said.
“I don’t think I’m from an older generation, I watch the changes in football, what is happening and what will happen next.
“But the most important thing is the characteristics of the players you have. It’s about what’s in front of you, not what’s in your head.
“You can’t press with a striker who is fat.”
Yet Real Madrid’s success this season has come less from the system or the style than Ancelotti’s connection with the players. Every controversy has come and gone, the player and team always put ahead of his own ego and reputation.
When Toni Kroos showed his frustration at being substituted, Ancelotti said “he got annoyed with the manager not the man”.
When Real Madrid were thrashed at home by Barcelona, he said: “We have to keep perspective, we can’t lose our heads.”
Even the sidelining of Eden Hazard and Gareth Bale has happened without fuss.
– ‘Not a single mess this season’ –
During the semi-final against Manchester City, Kroos said Ancelotti asked the veteran players for advice about substitutions in extra time.
“That describes perfectly the manager he is and why he works so well with this team,” Kroos said.
“I haven’t had a single mess this season,” said Ancelotti.
Ancelotti’s arrival last year came as a surprise, not least to Real Madrid. The decision came after a chance conversation between Ancelotti and the club’s president Florentino Perez.
For Madrid, it was a safe appointment, a coach for the short-term who could be hired easily and, perhaps, fired without too much trouble.
For Ancelotti, it was an unexpected and , probably, final chance to work at the very highest level.
For club and coach, it has gone much better than expected, a La Liga title already in the bag and now a 14th European Cup in sight.
“I knew about the quality of these players but what has surprised me is how they have kept their seriousness, their humility and professionalism,” said Ancelotti.
“Players who have made history haven’t changed, that’s impressive.”