Ancelotti within touching distance of European grand slam as Real Madrid eye La Liga title

Manager has won all other major leagues across the continent and will complete the set if Madrid get a point at home to Espanyol on Saturday

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On his final match as head coach of Everton, 11 months ago, Carlo Ancelotti went to the Etihad Stadium to play the English champions. Within 14 minutes, his team were trailing 2-0, Riyad Mahrez having set up a Kevin de Bruyne goal while some spectators were still taking their seats, and Gabriel Jesus, with an elegant turn away from his marker, taking advantage of a De Bruyne pass.

On his next visit to the same stadium last Tuesday, Ancelotti experienced an alarming deja vu. The defence he is now in charge of organising allowed Mahrez to cross for De Bruyne to score, and, very soon, Gabriel to spin away from a marker and make good on a De Bruyne pass. Manchester City had a 2-0 lead within 12 minutes this time, against Ancelotti’s Real Madrid in a Champions League semi-final first leg.

Only the other day, Ancelotti was explaining, without making it sound like a boast, that in his long career in management he seldom makes the same mistake twice in quick succession. After a quarter of a century in management, and a warehouse full of trophies, he can say that with authority.

Conceding two sets of replica goals to City within less than a year looks like an oversight, except that what happened next was very distinct. Everton lost their last match of their single season under Ancelotti 5-0 (and finished in the top half of the Premier League, a good deal better off than Everton are now).

Ancelotti’s Madrid finished up 4-3 losers at City and kept alive their chances of making it into a European Cup final after next Wednesday’s second leg.

On Saturday, Madrid can boost their confidence by claiming the point they need to confirm, with four games to spare, the Spanish Liga title. They are at home to Espanyol. Ancelotti will rest some senior players from the starting XI and still expect his less-used squad members to help deliver the right result at the Bernabeu.

The significance of the title for the head coach will be immense. Winning La Liga, the major trophy that eluded Ancelotti in a previous, European Cup-winning, Copa del Rey-lifting two-year spell at Madrid from 2013, will give ‘Carletto’ a unique grand slam of leagues.

His has already tasted success in Serie A as head coach of AC Milan in 2004, in Premier League with Chelsea in 2010, with the Ligue 1 crown at PSG in 2013 and in Bundesliga with Bayern Munich five years ago.

With La Liga, those are the five strongest domestic competitions in the world. An understated 62 year-old Italian is close to conquering them all.

He was genuinely surprised last summer to be asked back at Madrid, sincere in telling Everton he would not have walked away from Goodison Park for any other offer.

He had not been lobbying for a job that, once Zinedine Zidane stepped down having fallen short in a gripping title race against Atletico Madrid, Real were minded to fill with a younger coach. “The decision came from Madrid,” explained Ancelotti this week. “They had confidence in what I could do and I’m enjoying it.”

He did not enjoy losing 4-0 at home to Barcelona last month, although the gap in the table by then was large enough that Madrid were still firm favourites for La Liga. He did not delight in City going 2-0 up so early in Tuesday’s riveting contest, an evening when some of the complications of the Madrid squad Ancelotti inherited were apparent.

When Ancelotti came back to the Bernabeu, after six years away, two of the pillars of the team were leaving - Raphael Varane to Manchester United and Sergio Ramos to PSG.

Ancelotti’s work with a new-look central defence has been one of his achievements, and the moments when madridistas have longed for the authority of Ramos and Varane very few. But at the Etihad, the flaws in the performances of Eder Militao and David Alaba in defence did provoke some longing for Ramos and Varane.

Appreciation for Ancelotti’s coaching would start at the front of the team. Vinicius Junior’s improvement as a finisher has been startling over the last eight months. Karim Benzema, 34, has never looked a more complete centre-forward. He scored his 40th and 41st goals of the season at City in midweek. “We’re lucky to have him,” says Ancelotti.

Madrid may also be deemed lucky that Barcelona have have been at a low ebb for much of the past year, and that Atletico turned unusually loose and inconsistent in their defence of the title.

But Ancelotti is tired of hearing what he calls “so many people saying ‘but’ while we are top of the league”. He will enjoy confirmation of his grand slam of titles when it comes, knowing that very quickly judgement will be reserved on what happens in the second leg against City.

Updated: April 29, 2022, 6:00 AM
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