Carlo Ancelotti now stands out from the crowd after leading a transitioning Real Madrid side to unlikely success
While it’s still open to debate whether the Champions League final actually decides the continent’s best team, there’s no doubt as to which club is the biggest in the competition – or, more precisely, what this awareness made to Real Madrid.
It was this sense of fate that Liverpool came up against in Paris.
That’s what Carlo Ancelotti explained in the Stade de France auditorium after the match, as he generally sought to deflect praise despite a fourth Champions League medal on his chest.
“It’s easier to win the Champions League with Madrid than with any other club,” said the Italian. “It’s the story, it’s all that’s happened to us, it’s the affinity…
There were a few elements to that statement that were ironic, even if it didn’t come with Ancelotti’s signature arched eyebrow.
Madrid’s affinity with the Champions League can make any challenge easier, but no team has ever had it harder.
First there was the race. Madrid faced the champions of France, who are also one of the two richest clubs in the world, as well as the clubs that came first, second and third in England, the richest league in the world.
Then there were the circumstances. They were just 12 minutes ahead in their last 16 meetings with Paris Saint-Germain and 15 minutes in the semi-final with Manchester City, with all of their encounters requiring late goals, extra time or top-flight efforts.
The only difference came in the finale itself, but that control was surely informed and influenced by the chaos of what came before.
Ancelotti, more versed in anyone on these occasions, having been on five, knew he couldn’t leave so much to chance when there was no second leg. It was do or die.
Madrid, as has often been the case, did the right thing.
In this match, it was necessarily a defensive performance. It was truly Catenaccio, something all the more ironic given Ancelotti’s career and how he reflected a new breed of Italian coaches of the mid-1990s.
This indicated something else relevant to the historical significance of these occasions. A defensive approach is usually an implicit acknowledgment that you are facing a superior team, as you adapt around them; you are not going to face each other or play the game on your terms.
The first 25 minutes seemed to make that clear. Thibaut Courtois, the winning man of the match, seemed to make it clear.
But being the bottom team as a whole doesn’t mean you weren’t deserving on the night.
Once Madrid withstood that early pressure, they were largely at ease. They didn’t necessarily have Liverpool where they wanted because Madrid would never want to play that deep, but the game was going as planned. They held on, Federico Valverde and Vinicius exploiting one of the few gaps still present in this Liverpool structure, behind the full-backs.
From there, Madrid didn’t need to attack anymore. Liverpool struggled to attack more.
After Sadio Mane’s thunderous effort in the first half, Courtois had no save to make until Mohamed Salah’s late run. Given that it came from an individual outburst, it was almost an acknowledgment that the team approach wasn’t working.
Liverpool had possession and territory but they lacked their usual intensity. It’s something Jurgen Klopp himself admitted after the game.
“I would have liked to have had a few more chances of this caliber in the last third, we could have done better passing and the crosses especially at the end of the game, crossing towards Courtois did not make too much sense. With our quality, we could have caused them more problems. But I saw a lot of passion and desire from my boys.
It’s just that Madrid are one of the few teams that can compete with Liverpool for that emotional intensity and willpower – certainly in the Champions League.
Ancelotti nurtured this, in skillful management, both psychological and tactical. It’s now unbelievable to think that Florentino Perez wanted to fire him for a similar performance in the first leg of the round of 16 against Paris Saint-Germain.
The truth is that it made for another bad final, the fourth in a row. It was an even worse occasion, given the dismal treatment of fans outside the stadium, but it’s a subject that can only be done justice elsewhere.
This underlines Ancelotti’s quality as a manager, at least in the cups. This is why Toni Kroos defended his tactical sense in the preparation for the final.
Ancelotti may not be able to impose the kind of identity modern coaches do and win leagues over the long haul, but he can adapt enough to beat them in knockout matches.
That’s why he now stands alone at the top of Europe’s biggest competition, with four Champions Leagues.
All managers in history would have dreamed of it. Does this mean that he is better than all of them?
It’s not that simple, given the complications of comparing events. There is also the question of what the Champions League has become, which is a competition you have a high chance of winning if you are at one of the richer clubs.
Ancelotti himself referred to it in another erased reflection.
“After four years I struggled to fight for titles, coming back to Madrid was a great success.”
And yet, he was only there because Perez had no other viable options and no other big club wanted him.
This illustrates how circumstantial this is, especially with cup competitions. What can be said with certainty is that Ancelotti is more adept at navigating knockouts than anyone else in history.
“I had doubts in many games,” he said. “But my players believed, believed, believed.”
It was up to him and how he amplified the history of this club.
And yet, there is also another irony.
A truism that has grown over the past few years, particularly as the Champions League has become more erratic in the round of 16, is that the only way to determine the greatness of a team that won it is whether it also won its domestic league.
Well, Ancelotti’s side have become just the fourth of Madrid’s 14 European champions to manage this. The heyday of Alfredo Di Stefano saw him only twice in five years. The Galactics never did. Cristiano Ronaldo only saw him once, in 2017.
Yet this Champions League seems all the more triumphant, and all the more challenging, as it is clearly a club in transition.
They are still adjusting to a new world. The failure to sign Kylian Mbappé is the great illustration of this. The offbeat nature of the team underscores this. Perez made a bombastic comment about ‘state-supported clubs’ like City and PSG after the game.
“Yes, they have the biggest budgets and that’s why they have the best players. In Madrid, we don’t distribute money. We distribute morals and values.
This is the kind of speech that victory allows. It also reflects something else that resonates about the Champions League finals.
They are landmarks in history but also beacons for the future; endpoints and encouragement.
Madrid may suddenly feel much more optimistic about what’s next. They showed Europe – and Mbappe – that this is the place to be. It will have an effect.
It will be much easier to improvise after failing to secure the French star, since the club will be more attractive again. They showed that this is always where you win the biggest prize in the game.
Liverpool’s enthusiasm for this is somewhat muted. The season proved to be rather disappointing, with the two trophies they won looking not quite so stellar against the silverware they were aiming to win.
The team suddenly doesn’t look so dynamic either. Sadio Mane has signaled his departure. Salah has only committed his future for another season, leaving more uncertainty there. Captain Jordan Henderson turns 32 in a fortnight and doesn’t play as much.
At least one other striker will need to be signed.
But, again, those are the kinds of prospects that come after a loss – especially in a game as defining as this.
Their team is still better placed than that of Madrid and most of Europe. They are still one of the best teams in Europe, as recognized by Madrid’s very approach.
It’s not the season it could have been. It’s not history. But there is still hope for the future. Klopp had a clear message for his fans after the game: save the final for next year.
The Liverpool manager, of course, is still optimistic; still enthusiastic.
While other clubs are constantly hoping for what comes next, Madrid continue to celebrate what they just did.