It is not exactly how Carlo Ancelotti will have envisaged preparations going for one of the biggest games of his storied coaching career. Ahead of Real Madrid’s attempts to overturn a 2-1 deficit to Juventus in Wednesday’s Champions League semifinal second leg at the Bernabeu, the Spanish giants have seen their Primera Division title hopes decimated, their injury problems increase and fresh scrutiny come upon two prominent members of the squad.
For Ancelotti, going up against a club that fired him 14 years ago, it is a sizable test of his managerial abilities. Were the Italian to succeed and go on to win the final in Berlin next month, he would become the first manager in history to win the European Cup four times, putting him down on paper as a managerial great. Yet evaluating Ancelotti’s coaching record is a far more complex assignment. A 2-2 draw at home to Valencia on Saturday left Madrid four points behind Barcelona with two games to play and means he is likely to fail to add to what can only be described as a hugely disappointing haul of league titles. In now 15 seasons of managing European giants -- Juventus, Milan, Chelsea, Paris Saint-Germain and Real Madrid -- he has landed just three league titles.
For the here and now it means that Ancelotti could well have to land the European Cup next month in order to remain employed at the Bernabeu. He certainly has the talent at his disposal to do so, but there is little room for error in his tactics going into Madrid’s return match with Juventus. In Turin he unquestionably got it wrong. Not for the first time Sergio Ramos looked badly out of his comfort zone in a midfield role, drawing further attention to Ancelotti’s struggles balancing a top-heavy midfield without the injured Luka Modric. His hopes of doing so on Wednesday have not been helped by an injury afflicting key man Toni Kroos, even though the German World Cup winner is set to be available to take his place in the lineup.
Throughout his career, Ancelotti has been a manager who molds his tactical approach around his players rather than having a defined way of playing. In that sense he is the perfect manager for a club like Real Madrid, which has so often shown to be more concerned with signing players based on their ability to sell shirts rather than filling a specific need on the pitch. For Ancelotti, it has meant his teams have often lacked fluidity and natural balance, but it has also been a tool towards what has been his best quality as a coach -- managing the egos of star players. Those man-management skills may be needed now more than ever.
First there is the task of massaging the confidence of captain Iker Casillas after he was subjected to further boos from his own fans at the weekend. The 33-year-old was at fault for Juventus’ opening goal last week and continues to look in a state of permanent decline. Speculation suggests, too, that lining up a replacement has been a priority for Madrid’s hierarchy throughout this season. Indeed, given the fact that Ancelotti favored the now departed Diego Lopez in La Liga last season, there is the distinct impression that were it not for Casillas’ standing at the club he would not still be No. 1.
Just as important, though, will be Ancelotti’s handling of the most expensive player in history. Like Casillas, Gareth Bale has been subjected to abuse from the notoriously harsh Bernabeu crowd. His disappointing showing in the first leg in Turin, meanwhile, bought criticism from far and wide and subsequently an outspoken defense from the Welshman’s agent. Jonathan Barnett’s claim that Bale’s problem was that his teammates were not passing him the ball enough suggested potential rifts between him and the rest of the squad. It was hardly ideal on the eve of such a crucial fixture, and Ancelotti hit back saying “It would have been better if he had remained silent,” while denying any problems between Bale and his teammates.
The rare piece of good news for Ancelotti is that Karim Benzema is back available to reform the “BBC” frontline that was devastating last season but has failed to hit the same heights this campaign. Ancelotti must get them and the rest of his lineup to play more like a team rather than a group of unwisely assembled star individuals.
Up against them will be a team that has maximized its resources under Massimiliano Allegri. An unpopular appointment when he took over at the start of the season, Allegri trumped his much more lauded compatriot in Turin. Playing with a combination of defensive solidity and a consistent threat on the break through the combination of Carlos Tevez and former Real Madrid striker Alvaro Morata, Juventus built a 2-1 lead in their attempts to reach their first Champions League final since 2003. And, while Ancelotti will still be without his key midfielder on Wednesday, Allegri was able to welcome back his at the weekend. Paul Pogba, in demand from the biggest clubs across Europe, made a goal-scoring return in a 1-1 draw with Cagliari and is now ready to give Real Madrid’s weakened midfield further headaches at the Bernabeu.
Prediction: With the quality at their disposal from the likes of Ronaldo, Isco and James Rodríguez, Real Madrid can never be ruled out from winning any match. And it is certainly possible that the Spanish giants simply overwhelm a Juventus defense lacking in pace. But all does not seem well at the Bernabeu right now and there are definite signs that cracks are beginning to emerge from the "galactico" philosophy. On top of that, while Juventus have been able to take their foot off the gas in Serie A, Madrid have faced a grueling schedule with back-to-back intense league matches against Sevilla and Valencia surrounding this semifinal series. Juventus will be well organized and the impressive combination of Tevez and Morata up front could provide an away goal to send the Italian champions to the final.
Predicted score: Real Madrid 1-1 Juventus.