How Ancelotti masterminded an incredible 14th European Cup for Real Madrid

The Italian joined the Spanish giants during uncertain times, but the victory over Liverpool was one of his greatest achievements

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As Real Madrid brought a 14th European Cup back to the Spanish capital, first to the city’s Almudena Cathedral, then to the Cibeles fountain where they celebrate their trophies before the Bernabeu, the respect for one man was clear.

Manager Carlo Ancelotti may be self-effacing but he enjoys these celebrations. On Saturday in Paris, just after the 1-0 victory over Liverpool, he promised he would sing at the Cibeles and at the stadium with the fans, then he is set to take a summer break in his home on Canada’s west coast.

Sunday’s celebrations followed another after Madrid won La Liga at the start of May, when he was pictured in shades smoking a cigar with the smiling Madrid players.

“No, I don’t smoke cigars,” he said after, just for clarification. “It was only a photo with my friends. Yes these players are my friends.” And how you believe it when you see how he gets by with a little help from his friends.

A year ago, Ancelotti’s Everton side lost their final game of the season 5-0 and finished tenth. It wasn’t seen as a success then, though it looks a little more respectable after their struggles this season just finished.

The 62-year-old walked out of Everton for Madrid – as most would – but they were uncertain times at the Bernabeu. Madrid didn’t lose money during the pandemic like most clubs, but there were expectations in some quarters that they would given the huge cost of redeveloping their stadium.

That, and the loss of key players in recent years from Cristiano Ronaldo to the sidelined Gareth Bale, to defenders Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane. The team were in a rebuild phase where they weren’t expected to add to their record 13 European Cups as they welded together a new Madrid of stellar emerging talents like Vinicius Junior and Rodrygo.

Others like Martin Odegaard, Sergio Reguilon and Achraf Hakimi were sold because Madrid needed money, especially as there were no takers for Bale’s vast wages. Neighbours Atletico were champions, two English teams had contested the 2021 Champions League final and Real were building up a fund to sign Erling Haaland or Kylian Mbappe in 2022.

Liverpool v Real Madrid player ratings

The season was expected to be a transitional one and there were other issues for the Italian. Who knew how long Toni Kroos, Luca Modric, or Karim Benzema, 33, could go on for?

Ancelotti knew better than most and he improved Madrid. They scored more goals, played better football and won more games. The Italian fixed the problems in their defence.

Other pillars of great Madrid sides remained hugely important. Goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois and La Liga’s leading scorer Benzema were their best performers, along with Brazilian forward Vinicius Junior and his compatriot, central defender Eder Militao.

Benzema might be favourite for the Ballon d’Or after his Champions League heroics, but Courtois was the man of the match in the final, the one who attracted the most effusive of Ancelotti’s praise.

“I said to Thibaut before the game – I’ve got you to the final, now it’s time for you to win it,” Ancelotti said. “And that’s what he did.”

Ancelotti become the first man to win the European Cup four times after success with AC Milan in 2003 and 2007, and Real in 2014 and now 2022.

Real fans party in Spain

And they did so having overcome Paris Saint-Germain, holders Chelsea, Manchester City and finally Liverpool along the way. Ancelotti’s side needed good fortune, they needed Benzema at one end of his team and Courtois at the other, but Madrid win Champions League finals. It was their fifth in nine years since Ancelotti’s side dramatically beat Atletico in Lisbon in 2014. Madrid have won all five.

Ancelotti didn’t stay at the club after the 2014 win. The Bernabeu managerial fuse is a short one and less than a year after he claimed the tenth European Cup they had tried to win for 12 years, they sacked him.

“Real Madrid always do things which appear to have no logic,” said Diego Forlan, the former Manchester United, Atletico and Inter striker. “That’s what Madrid do. They sack managers when they’ve won the European Cup, they sell some of their best players at their peak. Everyone shakes their heads at Madrid, but everyone pays attention to Madrid at the same time.”

He wasn’t short of offers.

“Ancelotti, is experienced, speaks many languages and he’s wise,” Forlan told The National. “He could settle in most places, he’s a fine coach and he was a success at Madrid, a club who couldn’t get beyond the last eight in the Champions League for eight years including while I was in Spain.”

And now he’s won his fourth European Cup as a manager. Bob Paisley won it three times, Zinedine Zidane also. Ancelotti becomes one of seven men who have been a champion of Europe as a player and a manager. You have to go back six decades to find one where the didn’t have his hands on the European Cup.

After his playing career finished amid too many injuries, Ancelotti did his badges, wrote his coaching thoughts in a paper saying that football needed to be more dynamic, and became assistant to Arrigo Sacchi for the Italian national side between 1992-95. Then he went alone with Serie B Reggiana and led them to promotion before Parma signed him in 1996.

“I loved working with him at Parma,” said Jesper Blomqvist. “I improved as a player under him. I was shocked when he was sacked.”

Juventus hired him. They were considered the best team in the world and he had Antonio Conte, Didier Deschamps, Zidane, Filippo Inzaghi, Zoran Mirkovic, Paulo Montero and Igor Tudor to manage. All became managers and referenced him, yet Juventus sacked him after two seasons and only an Intertoto Cup to show for it.

Milan called and in eight years he made them great again.

“His 2005 Milan side were better than his 2007 one,” says former Liverpool captain Jamie Carragher. “Their midfield was the key: Pirlo, Gattuso, Seedorf and Kaka. I think the secret to their success was Ancelotti changing the system to a midfield diamond to suit the players. He’d been brought up on the 4-4-2 of Arrigo Sacchi.”

But Milan were caught in a storm. The rise of the Premier League knocked Serie A off its perch as football’s richest league, while the 2008 financial crisis hit southern Europe hard including Italian club owners.

High tax rates meant that Italy continued to lose players and managers. Ancelotti went to Chelsea for two years and won the Premier League and FA Cup double in 2010. PSG followed for two years. They hoped he could help the win the Champions League, but, as has been the trend with their subsequent managers, he managed only Ligue 1.

Then it was that first Madrid spell, before he replaced Guardiola at Bayern and won the Bundesliga in 2017. He took a year out, coached Napoli in 2018-19 and Everton for two years between 2019-21.

Madrid announced their team for the final two hours before they were required to. Barcelona manager Xavi Hernandez once said of Real: “Madrid have their system and there are some things I actually envy: their optimism, that cockiness they have that allows them to tell you with absolute conviction: ‘We. Are. Going. To. Beat. You.”

They had that in spades in Europe this season, despite not being considered the best team in Europe. Except officially, they are.

Ahead of the game in Paris, Jurgen Klopp said: “Carlo is one of the most successful managers in the world and he’s a role model in terms of how he deals with success – one of the best people you could ever meet.”

After it, Klopp hugged him and congratulated him, the most successful manager in European football history.

Updated: May 30, 2022, 10:38 AM