Three weekends ago, Carlo Ancelotti, the Real Madrid manager, made an apology to the club’s supporters that was quickly backed up with a promise.
He said sorry for his poor judgements contributing to a humiliating 4-0 home defeat to Barcelona. “These things can happen as a one-off,” Ancelotti added, “but they don’t tend to happen twice with me.”
That’s as close as you will hear to Ancelotti, one of the highest-achieving managers of the 21st century, blowing his own trumpet. Unlike some in his profession, he does not make great boasts about his expertise, but will rather let his long, distinguished career speak for itself.
His three Champions League triumphs, two with AC Milan, one with Madrid, are its peaks. By the end of next month he should also have completed a rare clean sweep of league titles across the five strongest divisions in Europe: He has a Serie A crown, with Milan; a Premier League, with Chelsea; Bundesliga and Ligue 1 gold medals with Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain. Madrid, who took on Ancelotti for a second time last summer, are currently 12 points clear of Barcelona in La Liga.
He also has Madrid with one foot in the semi-finals of a Champions League in which, going into the last eight, they were not considered among the four strongest teams. Wednesday’s 3-1 victory at Stamford Bridge against his old club, Chelsea, the defending European champions, was stunning, and a triumph for the tried-and-tested manager and for the know-how of his senior lieutenants, above all Madrid captain Karim Benzema.
Ancelotti, who was only able to be on the touchline having tested negative for Covid-19 in Madrid on the morning of the match, had been as good as his word. He very seldom makes two misjudgements within a short time.
“We planned well and executed the plan well,” he said of the emphatic quarter-final first leg win in London. Under Ancelotti, a full-strength Madrid will usually mean a single selection dilemma. The midfield trio of Casemiro, Luka Modric and Toni Kroos have been building their partnership for the best part of eight years. The role that switches is the berth to their right, be it Marco Asensio, Rodrygo or someone with more containing qualities.
Against Chelsea, Ancelotti opted for the bite and energy of Federico Valverde, and by picking the Uruguayan, he chose wisely, gaining cover at full-back that in turn allowed Dani Carvajal, the right back, to supplement the central defenders’ tasks in blunting Kai Havertz, Christian Pulisic and Mason Mount.
Chelsea 1 Real Madrid 3: player ratings
That Chelsea trio are aged between 22 and 23. The spine of the Madrid team, through Carvajal and David Alaba and the thirtysomethings of midfield to Benzema, 34, are, on average, a decade older, and have 17 European Cups winners’ medals between them. By the end of the dismantling of Chelsea it was hard not to conclude that the Men had beaten the Boys. Chelsea’s seniors, Thiago Silva and Cesar Azpilicueta both had tough nights, Jorginho too little time on the ball.
Ancelotti, 62, had trumped Thomas Tuchel, 48, as well, Tuchel’s decision to play Azpilicueta as left wing-back a choice that doubly misfired. Vinicius Junior had a fulfilling first half attacking the areas, on the right of Chelsea’s back line, normally patrolled by Azpilicueta and presented Benzema with an perfectly measured and weighted cross for the captain’s first headed goal; Benzema’s second headed strike, for a 2-0 lead, came after Azpilicueta had been bypassed on the other flank.
In his 15 months in charge of Chelsea, Tuchel has rarely appeared so exasperated. The team into which he injected order and shape on being appointed as manager last January, the side he guided past Madrid in the semi-final to the European Cup triumph last May, have now conceded seven times at home in the space of two fixtures.
“It is alarming,” said Tuchel, acknowledging his “mistake” in how he had set up his defence and declaring, bluntly, he sees no way back into the tie even with 90 minutes in Madrid still to go.
Tuchel’s pessimism would be justified if Benzema continues in his current vein of form. In his last 115 minutes of Champions League knockout football he has scored two hat-tricks, the first to dramatically turn around the last-16 tie against PSG that Madrid were losing 2-0 until the last half-hour, the second to stun Stamford Bridge. Against PSG, as at Chelsea, Vinicius assisted one goal, Modric another and the other Benzema made for himself by putting pressure on a goalkeeper who was looking to play the ball out from the back.
“He is a complete player and we’re very lucky to have him,” said Ancelotti of the Frenchman. “He gets better and better, and more and more of a leader.”