Carlo Ancelotti stays cool ahead of Real Madrid's Spanish Super Cup battle with Barcelona

Italian manager plays down favourites tag ahead of 'Desert Clasico' semi-final clash in Saudi Arabia against old rivals

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After 40 years as a player and manager spent collecting the most prestigious club trophies with startling frequency, a gap of almost five years since the last might make a man doubt himself or at least seem impatient. If he is, Carlo Ancelotti — always serene and measured — conceals his impatience well.

The 62-year-old will still pay maximum attention to this week’s Spanish Super Cup, an event exported to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. It is the opportunity for Ancelotti — whose last major prize was for guiding Bayern Munich to the 2017 German Super Cup — to add a new medal to the vast archive. A trophy cabinet that includes league titles from four of the top five European leagues as a manager — Serie A, Premier League, Ligue 1 and Bundesliga — as well as the three Champions Leagues spread between his previous spells coaching AC Milan and Madrid.

A Spanish Super Cup would be his first of its kind and a novel one because of the venue and the fresh, expanded format of what used to be a one-off, summer event. It now involves semi-finals, the first of them Wednesday’s so-called ‘Desert Clasico’, Ancelotti’s Real Madrid against Barcelona, ahead of Sunday’s final.

A glance at the La Liga table clearly shows who starts as favourites. Madrid sit top, a full 17 points clear of sixth-placed Barca, the eternal rivalry currently best characterised as the opposition of calm efficiency on the all-white side versus erratic anxiety from the Catalans.

Naturally, Ancelotti resists the assumption that Madrid will cruise the clasico and come home having defeated Atletico Madrid or Athletic Bilbao, who meet in Thursday’s semi, in the final. “I’d worry if the players thought we’re favourites, but they don’t think that,” he said on Tuesday. “These games are always even, however big the gap in the league. Our last Liga game against Barca was pretty even.”

That is a generous description. Madrid beat Barcelona 2-1 at Camp Nou in October, the scoreline narrowed by Sergio Aguero very late on, when time had run out for a comeback. Aguero is now retired, Barca’s manager that day, Ronald Koeman, has been sacked and replaced by Xavi Hernandez, and the impression of a Barcelona restlessly chopping and changing carries over into this clasico. Only on Monday were they able to eke out space in the Spanish league’s strict wage-cap system to register Ferran Torres, their €55 million new signing from Manchester City.

Madrid’s demeanour is unruffled by comparison. Asked yesterday about his probable line-up, Ancelotti reported possible fitness doubts only over Dani Carvajal, at right-back, and a pending assessment of Marco Asensio’s readiness. By naming those two, he knew he had given enough information for reporters to second-guess nine or ten of his likely starting team.

His second Madrid tenure — he returned, after six years away, in June — has been defined by a clarity about his preferred first XI. “I won’t rotate for the sake of rotating,” the Italian made clear in the autumn, a posture that, with his sport affected by congested fixture-lists as a result of the pandemic, almost seems to go against the grain. Fatigue is every elite manager’s nemesis, and Ancelotti knew when he left his job at Everton to come back to Madrid, he was taking over a squad described as in ‘transition’.

Sergio Ramos and Rafael Varane, who began their long partnership at the heart of the defence during Ancelotti’s first spell, from 2013 to 2015, both left last summer. Neither of the club’s most costly recruits, Eden Hazard and Gareth Bale could be described as flourishing. Luka Modric was turning 36, Toni Kroos was 32, Casemiro into his 30th year and Karim Benzema into his 34th.

Yet that quartet, along with the new centre-back pairing of David Alaba and Gabriel Militao, fill six of the top seven places in the list of outfielders who have played most minutes for Madrid this season. The other is Vinicius Junior, who since turning 21 last July, has thrived under Ancelotti’s guidance, adding composure as finisher and deliverer of the final pass to his brilliance as a dribbler.

Bale, who has missed the Riyadh trip because of injury and not played for Madrid since August, and Hazard are both behind Vinicius in the hierarchy, and as Ancelotti pointed out “the partnership between Alaba and Militao is turning out very well for us.” Madrid have lost just once in 15 matches, and, from Vinicius through to the veterans, none of Ancelotti’s preferred starters is asking for a rest.

Updated: January 12, 2022, 3:07 AM