Football

Real Madrid’s Carlo Ancelotti is a players’ coach, an approach that has him on brink of Champions League history

Real Madrid’s Carlo Ancelotti is a players’ coach, an approach that has him on brink of Champions League history
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The quadruple is still alive as Paris prepares to host the Champions League final, but only when it comes to Carlo Ancelotti’s pursuit of a fourth European Cup. The Real Madrid coach can eclipse Liverpool’s Bob Paisley and his Madrid predecessor, Zinedine Zidane, by becoming the first to win four Champions Leagues as a manager if the LaLiga champions beat Liverpool in Stade de France on Saturday.

History awaits for Ancelotti, the 62-year-old Italian manager who also won two European Cups as a midfielder in Arrigo Sacchi’s great AC Milan side in 1989 and 1990, but there is no sense of personal legacy being a driving force for him this weekend .

« He couldn’t care less about the record books, » professor Chris Brady, who co-authored Quiet Leadership, Ancelotti’s book about management and coaching, told ESPN. « He knows about it, but he just shrugs his shoulders when you mention it to him. In Carlo’s mind, only one thing matters. When I ask him what his job is, he simply says, ‘to keep the president happy,’ and he has done that with Florentino Perez at Real, with Silvio Berlusconi at Milan and Roman Abramovich at Chelsea.

« It’s not about Carlo, and it never has been. »

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The same applies this weekend in Paris. Here is a coach who has won as many European Cups as Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp combined, more than Jose Mourinho, Sir Alex Ferguson, Vicente del Bosque, Ottmar Hitzfeld and Johan Cruyff, But, despite standing on the verge of becoming the first to win it four times, the prematch build-up is centered not on Ancelotti but on Karim Benzema and Mohamed Salah, Luka Modric and Virgil van Dijk — the great players who will decide the outcome on the pitch.


There has always been something understated about Ancelotti despite his stellar record. Some coaches are all about their so-called « philosophy » or destiny — sometimes both — and every trophy won or lost is viewed through the lens of their own personal success or failure. In the meantime, Ancelotti wins a trophy, shrugs those shoulders and leaves it to the players and the president to take the plaudits, although he did celebrate Real’s LaLiga title this season by smoking a cigar on the team bus during the trophy parade — a photograph that went viral after Madrid’s dramatic Champions League semifinal fight back against Manchester City.

« No, I don’t smoke cigars! » Ancelotti said afterwards. « It was only a photo with my friends and yes, these players are my friends. »

Ancelotti’s relationship with his players is perhaps what defines his coaching approach. When he was dismissed by Chelsea in 2011, less than a year after guiding the team to a Premier League and FA Cup double, a key factor in Abramovich’s decision to fire him was because the Russian owner believed that Ancelotti was not tough enough with his squad and too collegiate with his senior players.

« He always sides with his players, » Brady said. « That’s why they all love him. He still thinks of himself as a player who is now managing and he will side with them, even if it costs him his job. »

For many who have played for him, Ancelotti’s readiness to consult his players and discuss tactics and training methods is what sets him apart and enables him to deliver success at the highest level. « When speaking to me, Frank [Lampard]Didier [Drogba], he wanted to pick our brains: ‘Is this too much tactics for the players to do? Are we doing too much of this? I want to get the right balance,' » former Chelsea captain John Terry told The Coaches’ Voice. « I’ve never had a manager actually, in probably all of my career, that asked the players and gave them a bit of responsibility.

« He made you feel that the togetherness was incredible, and we went on to win some big things. »

As Real battled to eliminate Guardiola’s City in the Santiago Bernabeu during their incredible semifinal second leg earlier this month — City were two goals ahead on aggregate before Madrid scored twice in stoppage time to take the tie to extra time — Ancelotti once again turned to his senior players to find a way to win, speaking to Toni Kroos and Marcelo on the sidelines to canvass their opinion.

« The coach himself had a few doubts about who he would bring on and who not to bring on, » Kroos said after the game. « We [Madrid’s players] have all seen a few football games ourselves. That allows you to exchange ideas a bit. That describes him really well, and why things always work well with the team. It’s outstanding. In the end he decides, but of course he’s interested in our opinion. »

One source close to Ancelotti told ESPN that the secret of his success comes from him being a manager of men rather than youngsters. Throughout his coaching career, his big successes — Champions Leagues with Milan, domestic success with Chelsea, multiple trophies with Madrid — have been with teams stacked with experienced players, not emerging youngsters. At Real, whom he rejoined for a second spell last June after stints in charge of Bayern Munich, Napoli and Everton, Ancelotti has once again managed to inspire a team of aging players into feats many regarded as being beyond them, with the 34-year -old Benzema enjoying the best season of his career under Ancelotti.

« During his first spell at Real, Carlo used Benzema as the pivot between Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale, so he always played with his back to goal in the No. 9 role, » Brady said. « But Carlo always knew that Benzema was really important to the team, and now he is able to let him play with more freedom.

« Carlo knows how to get the best out of players. Bale had his best two seasons at Real under Carlo between 2013 and 2015 and Ronaldo was outstanding, too, even though Carlo wanted to play him as a No. 9. But Cristiano told him he was better coming off the wing, so he let him do that. was Carlo’s view of that one. »


Liverpool are the team standing between Ancelotti and his « personal quadruple, » and they are an opponent that has delivered joy and pain in similar measure over the years. In 2007, Ancelotti won his second Champions League as a coach by guiding Milan to victory over Rafael Benitez’s Liverpool in Athens, but two years earlier, he was on the wrong side of the so-called « Miracle of Istanbul » when Liverpool overturned a 3 -0 half-time deficit to draw 3-3 and win on penalties.

Perhaps typical of Ancelotti, it is not a defeat that has caused him sleepless nights since.

« He just says ‘these things happen’ when you mention Istanbul, » Brady said. « Carlo still says that the first half in Istanbul is the best performance of any team that he has coached and that the second half, aside from eight minutes, was just as good. They played so well, but he just couldn’t change things quickly enough during that eight-minute spell when Liverpool scored three goals.

« And when he went to penalties, he wanted Andriy Shevchenko to take the first penalty. Shevchenko said he wanted to take the fifth — which was saved — so Carlo agreed. Why? Same reason as letting Ronaldo play off the wing: Why argue with one of the best players in the world? »

After almost 30 years as a coach, Ancelotti won’t change his approach to management now, regardless of the stakes involved. Aside from his own potential milestone, Real are chasing a record-extending 14th Champions League, while Liverpool are bidding to win their seventh.

Ancelotti beat Klopp’s Liverpool twice with Napoli and became the first — and only — Everton manager to win at Anfield this century when he guided the team to a 2-0 win against their neighbors in February 2021, so he knows how to win against one of the best teams of the Premier League era. When Saturday comes, though, the past will count for nothing. Ancelotti will send his players out and leave them to get on with the job, just as he has always done.

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