One match, or even two never define a season, let alone a trend although it is tempting to draw sweeping conclusions from the way the Champions League semi-finals have panned out. Two Spanish clubs in the Champions League final, and that from one city, Madrid, must surely mark a very dramatic shift from the German domination of the League. After all it was only last year we had an all German final. And Bayern Munich was seen as the team that defined everything that was strong and worth emulating in European football.
Such a conclusion is too early to draw. It is even more dangerous to write off Barcelona, the team that has defined European football for almost half a decade, winning the Champions League thrice since 2005-2006. Tiki-taka has been written off before and come back resoundingly. A year after the 2010 defeat to Jose Mourinho’s Inter, Barcelona won the Champions League and then after Chelsea won at the Nou Camp in 2012 Spain won the European championship. However, what can be said with more certainty is that the Carlo Ancelotti has once again shown how he can work with the biggest egos in football and still come up trumps.
Ancelotti, of course, knows all about working with powerful men, in particular men, who have made vast sums of money elsewhere and see football as a toy. For the Italian this is a familiar has never been a strfootball journey. For two years, at the turn of the millennium, he coached Juventus owned by Gianni Agnelli, one of Italy’s most famous businessmen. In Milan he worked for Silvio Berlusconi for eight years, at Chelsea two years for Roman Abramovich. Then after a spell with the Qataris at PSG he finally decided to move to Madrid. After working for such a galaxy of the rich and the famous dealing with the Madrid galacticos must seem like child play. These players may have defeated Jose Mourinho but clearly Ancelotti is getting the best of them. If proof was needed the semi-final victory against Bayern on their home ground summed it up. It has certainly raised questions about the possession game Guardiola has brought to Munich and for all Guardiola’s defence of his system he may have to change. What is more, while Pep Guardiola looked quite nonplussed during Real’s demolition of his team Ancelotti looked on as if it was a stroll in the park.
The Italian has always given that impression and this may be explained by the fact that this son of a farmer brought up in Reggiolo has always been quick to adapt to his circumstances. In a conversation I had with him when he was at Chelsea, back at the end of 2009, he compared what it was like working for the football trinity of Agnelli, Berlusconi and Abramovich
“I was not close to Agnelli but he had fantastic irony. He liked to joke with the players and the trainer. I had a very close relationship with Berlusconi. He was my President when I played and when I coached. Abramovich is closer to Berlusconi. He has a passion for his club, he likes to speak about football, as does Berlusconi. Both of them like to watch football on television. After a game he comes to the dressing room.”
The Italian had arrived at Stamford Bridge for the 2009 season having been heavily courted by Abramovich. In his autobiography published in May of that year, Preferisco La Copa (I prefer the Cup), Ancelotti had described how he had a James Bond-style secret meeting with Abramvoich at the George V hotel in Paris. This was just after Chelsea had lost the Champions League Final to Manchester United in Moscow in May 2008 and Abramovich moaned: “Chelsea don’t have personality… this is a team I don’t recognise.” Ancellotti’s response was: “President, your team is very physical, you have to put more quality in the middle.” He suggested buying Franck Ribery and Xavi Alonso.
That November when I went to Chelsea’s sylvan training ground in Cobham the club was sunk in gloom. Not only had Ribery and Xavi Alonso not arrived but, although the Blues led the Premiership, the club had been dumped out of the Carling Cup and had only one win in six matches in all competitions. Ancelotti had even been quoted as saying he feared the sack. But when I uttered the word sack Ancelotti looked quizzically at the interpreter, clearly puzzled by the word. After it had been translated the Italian laughed and said: “I never said, if I don’t win Roman will send me out. My aim is to do the best in this club as I have done in other clubs.” And that best as was what he achieved at Milan, where he twice won the Champions League – the great prize that Abramovich had set his heart on.
And just to show that any sacking threat was far from his mind Ancelotti after telling me he was religious even discussed whether there might be a football pitch in heaven “0”Paradiso?” he asked, turning to his interpreter who had been translating from time to time. Then the 50 year old, who was sitting in an armchair in his office, raised his arms high above his head to indicate heaven, lowered them below his waist for hell and then puts his fingertips together near his lips to indicate the middle destination.
“I hope,” he told me in English “I can go to Pparadiso, if I am unlucky middle. Hell, I don’t think I will go to,” and he laughed. The laughter seemed to suggest that the Italian had the measure of his Russian owner. And this was no ordinary owner. This owner not only wanted to win every match but, not content with having a manager, also had coaches like the Dutchman Pete de Visser to act as his private football adviser. Ancelotti was Abramovich’s fourth manager since September 2007. But despite this the Italian’s confidence was remarkable. When I asked him about Abramovich consulting people like de Visser he said: “He can speak with anybody. I don’t have a problem, for I have confidence in myself.”
His confidence was such that he even saw no danger from Chelsea’s own galacticos, despite the fact that his predecessor Luiz Felipe Scolari had been sacked following a show of Chelsea player power by John Terry, Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba and Michael Ballack.
“No” he told me. “Down the years I trained a lot of players with power.” In Milan they included: Paolo Maldini, Rui Costa, Andrea Pirlo, Filippo Inzaghi and Andriy Shevchenko. While the player must know who is in charge, Ancelotti has always made sure that there is not a gulf between the coach and the player. “I want to have us at the same level, a man-to-man relationship.”
By then he had been six months at the Bridge, and had had some man-to-man chats with his players, even swearing at them once in English after the 2-2 draw with Apoel in the Champions League, having earlier in the season berated them in Italian during a friendly with Reading. The change of language was advised by Ray Wilkins and Ancelotti said his blast after the Apoel game was not because of the draw or mistakes, “but because we played without intensity, without concentration, slow. This is not good. You have to play 90 minutes with intensity.”
Passion I discovered was a key word for Ancelotti. “When I was a child I played with passion. Now it is the same.” Chelsea that season lost to Aston Villa, a team whose intensity and organisation reflecting their then manager Martin O’Neil had much impressed the Italian.
He was just as impressed by England, helped no doubt by the fact that the then England manager Fabio Capello had coached Ancelotti for a year and was, said Ancelotti, “the best coach to observe the game and change things at halftime which is a fantastic quality.”
For a visitor keen to impress, Ancelotti was full of praise for the English. “I saw the training system here was good.” And compared to Italy he had been pleasantly surprised to find, “players here are used to working hard.” The only flaw for Ancelotti in this English football paradise was the music in the dressing room before a game. “It is rap. I want to change to Elton John, even Pavarotti,” but then with a laugh addes added, “It is impossible!”
His love affair with England was helped by the fact that he could live a normal life. “I can live like a normal person. I could not do that in Italy. I can walk in London without a problem.”
Not that this son of a farmer brought up in Reggiolo had much time for London except for work, “I cannot live in London. I am not used to staying in a big city.” As in Milan he lived close to the training ground – in Oxshott. Although rural, Oxshott is hardly Reggiolo, and there was little danger that the stockbroker belt would make Ancelotti forget the trials and tribulations of farming life, which are in his bones. “My father made parmesan cheese. It matured and then you sell. After one year you receive the money, you had to wait all that time to receive the money, you had to have patience.”
Ancelotti having signed a three year contract was sure he had the patience. He he was determined to do stay and improve his English. Yet despite doing the double that season, failure the next meant he was yet another manager who was sacked by Abramovich. So English football lost the one man who could have been the long term foreign manager to challenge Ferguson.
Should he win in Lisbon and secure Madrid’s holy grail of La Decima, a tenth European Cup and the first since 2002 , then there seems little prospect he will come to Old Trafford to take over from Ferguson. True, even winning the trophy Real desire most does not guarantee security of tenure. In 1998 Jupp Heynckes was sacked eight days after he had taken the trophy back to Madrid for the first time in 32 years. But then the bosses at Madrid thought that, the Champions League apart, that was the worst ever season. This time, despite the almost certain loss of the domestic title to Atletico Madrid, this fate seems unlikely. Indeed it is possible that in the years to come the Italian will finally fulfil what he sees as his destiny: managing Roma.