Real Madrids La Liga title Ancelotti easing Zidane shock new
The Estadio Santiago Bernabeu rocked as Karim Benzema slammed in the final goal of Saturdays straightforward 4-0 win over Espanyol, as all the hard work through a season in which Carlo Ancelottis Real Madrid team have been head and shoulders above everyone else in Spain was getting its reward.
Minutes later, the stadium was celebrating Madrids 35th La Liga title, as a mix of older heads and younger legs danced with the trophy on the pitch, with Ancelotti right in the middle of the celebrations.
On his return to Madrid for a second spell as coach last summer, the veteran Italian put his faith in a small core, veterans such as Benzema, Luka Modric and Thibaut Courtois, new arrival David Alaba and younger Brazilian trio Vinicius Junior, Eder Militao and Rodrygo. He also showed the conviction to ditch those long-serving players who have not kept their belief and physical levels up so Gareth Bale, Eden Hazard and Isco played barely any role at all in the title success.
Not everyone has agreed with all Ancelottis decisions, both inside and outside the dressing room and boardroom. Even after his team had built an apparently insurmountable lead by mid-season, there were still some critics within and without the club, especially after Marchs embarrassing 4-0 Clasico hammering at home by Barcelona.
Ancelotti accepted full responsibility for that defeat, and his team won each of their next five La Liga games, including Saturdays drubbing of Espanyol, which sees the title sealed with four games still to play.
This is not a vintage Madrid squad but they rose to every challenge faced. Sevilla were their closest challengers, and were beaten by late goals both at the Bernabeu and in the Sanchez Pizjuan. Barcelona and Atletico Madrid were both also put firmly in their place as Real more or less had the title already sealed by Christmas. They also won away at Real Sociedad, Athletic Bilbao and Real Betis.
Ancelottis side could play in different ways defend deep and counter, keep possession for long spells, or go on the front foot and attack, and generally did more than enough to really deserve the title.
They have not had such regular moments of brilliant football, a dressing-room source says. They are a very solid, very consistent team, and did their job in each game. They played some good games, with individual flashes from Benzema and Vinicius.
Some outside the Bernabeu might grumble that this was not a vintage La Liga either. Barcelona really struggled without their departed talisman Lionel Messi, while Atleticos attempt to hang onto their crown never got going.
Any idea that this title is not really worth celebrating so much was naysayed by the joy on the pitch and in the stands on Saturday. They still have Wednesdays Champions League semi-final second leg there againstManchester Cityto prepare for, but it has been 15 years since Madrid clinched a title at the Bernabeu, and their players and fans were definitely up to mark the occasion.
Ancelotti was also overjoyed as he became the first manager ever to win the title in each of Europes top five leagues following his successes in Italy with AC Milan (2003-04), inEnglandwithChelsea(20009-10), in France withParis Saint-Germain(2012-13) and inGermanywithBayern Munich(16-17).
The 62-year-old has at times been characterised as more of a cup specialist, but taking over a club which was listing badly last summer, and so quickly moulding a team to so easily win the title is a remarkable achievement.
Ancelotti deserves a big part of the credit, says another source close to a long-serving player. The club has not been signing superstars, but he has remade the team, showing all his experience.
When Zinedine Zidane resigned as Madrid coach at the end of last season, Madrid were not prepared, despite the Frenchman himself having given plenty of public warning. Then Everton manager Ancelotti was not among the initial replacements analysed Mauricio Pochettino, Max Allegri, Antonio Conte and Roberto Martinez were considered first, as was the idea of promoting former player Raul Gonzalez from the Castilla youth team, but none worked out for different reasons.
It was more than a week before Perez told director general Jose Angel Sanchez to make the call to Merseyside and invite back a coach who they had sacked decisively just 12 months after winning the 2014 Champions League. This was not because they realised that the Italian was the perfect tactical fit for Madrids current squad. Ancelotti was a patch, to cover after Zidane, says a knowledgeable source.
The 62-year-old knew this but did not really mind. He was clearly delighted to return to a city he grew to love during his first spell, and also to get away from the debacle he could see coming at Everton. While Zidane had left saying publicly that Perez was not willing to shake up an ageing squad, Ancelotti made clear on arrival that he was happy to work with what he had.
I know the squad very well, lots of experienced players who I know, and promising young players too, plus those coming back from loans, Ancelotti said at his presentation. We have the players to win trophies.
That was an admission that the coach at Madrid does not have too much power over transfers. Ancelotti also knew he would have to work within a different financial reality to his first spell from 2013-15.Cristiano Ronaldowas long gone, and Sergio Ramos had just left. Within weeks,Raphael VaraneandMartin Odegaardwere sold to thePremier Leagueto raise funds asPerez tried everything to prise his obsession Kylian Mbappe from PSG. Ancelotti was delighted to be reunited with David Alaba, who he knew from their time together at Bayern. Young midfielder Eduardo Camavinga was a nice addition for the future, but mostly he knew he would have to deal with what he was given.
Conversations over Ancelottis staff did not take long either. Italian fitness coach Antonio Pintus, who had driven the team to three successive Champions League victories under Zidane, had been personally re-hired by Perez to improve the teams fitness, intensity and injury record. Goalkeeping coach Luis Llopis, who worked at the Bernabeu from 2015 to 2018, also returned. Neither of these were Ancelottis personal picks, but he made sure his own son Davide got a permanent place as his No 2.
The 32-year-old Francesco Mauri, son of Ancelottis assistant during his first spell on the Madrid bench Giovanni Mauri, was also hired as a senior assistant. The incoming managerial ticket was a blend of veterans and young emerging talents, just like the squad.
As he settled back in at Madrids Valdebebas training facility last July, Ancelotti was relaxed. He quickly rebuilt relationships with players, staff and reporters he knew from his first spell, joking that everything was more or less the same as when he had left seven years before. There was very little time for group preparation in a pre-season interrupted by the European Championships, Olympic Games and niggling injuries. Many squad members also knew they were up for sale as Perez tried to raise enough money to tempt Mbappe. All of Bale, Hazard, Luka Jovic, Dani Ceballos and Marcelo ended up staying, and Ancelotti got to work on blending a team together working especially on building the confidence of all those who he aimed to count on through the season.
During his first spell on the Bernabeu, Ancelottis most used word while on media duties had been balance as he needed the rest of his team to provide a counterweight to its galactico attackers. Now he kept using the word intensity the squad no longer had multiple superstars at the peaks of their careers, so they would all have to work harder and focus more.
The Italian also clearly saw his objectives for the season. Looking rationally at the challenges he faced, the domestic league title was the most obviously achievable. The priority was to put together a strong and solid team capable of winning La Liga, which can then grow to compete for the Champions League, a source toldThe Athleticback in August.
La Ligas opening day on August 14 had a real back-to-the-future feel, with both Bale and Hazard in the XI for the trip to Alaves. Madrid won a very open game 4-1 with Benzema scoring twice and Vinicius adding the fourth off the bench. Week two was a 3-3 draw at a Levante team who would struggle all year. It was immediately clear that this Madrid side could score goals, but also had serious defensive issues.
Renovation work at the Bernabeu meant Madrid were not reunited with their fans until week four.There was a very makeshift feel to the stadium, with scaffolding and cranes all around the exterior, and many areas of seating closed off. The team also had a very unfinished look, but there were glimpses of potential. After slapstick defending allowed Celtas Santi Mina to open the scoring, Benzema slotted a hat-trick in a 5-2 win.
With traditional rivals Barcelona and defending champions Atletico Madrid stumbling almost immediately, Madrid were able to set an early pace. Even as Ancelotti continued to work out how to put the best shape on his team and squad, trying different formations and line-ups. Losing to Sheriff Tiraspol in the Champions League and Espanyol in La Liga within four days in late September broughtthe first serious criticism of the new campaign.
Madrid did not look very prepared, there were holes everywhere in their defence, a source close to a Blancos player said the day after the 2-1 defeat at Espanyol. Madrid are leading La Liga, but they are not playing especially well.
Ancelotti admitted to losing sleep thinking about how to get the blend he wanted to keep making chances but without sacrificing order at the back. The solution was to return to the 4-3-3, with Casemiro, Toni Kroos and Modric in the centre, which the team had mostly used in previous seasons. This meant ditching the plan to play a front-foot style, with a high defensive line and pressing in the opposition half. Instead, the team would sit deeper, not ask their older midfielders to run so much, and leave spaces up top for Vinicius to exploit. Ancelotti was showing, not for the first time in his career, that he could react to circumstances and take practical steps, rather than stay wedded to any one ideology.
These tactical tweaks meant there was little use for Hazard, Bale, Isco, Marcelo and anyone incapable or unwilling to provide the intensity and effort that was required. The new approach proved itself quickly in late Octobers first La Liga Clasico of the season when the 2-1 scoreline did not fully reflect Madrids clear superiority. We played an intelligent game, said Ancelotti that afternoon at the Nou Camp. We were very good at the back and dangerous on the counter. It was what we had planned.
That set off a run of seven straight La Liga wins including victories over supposed title rivals Sevilla, Real Sociedad and Atletico. Julen Lopeteguis well-organised Sevilla were the biggest test, but were beaten 2-1 at the Bernabeu in late November by an absolute screamer by Vinicius Junior.
That followed a run of other remarkably well-taken goals by the 21-year-old against Levante and Elche. As a player whose lack of end product had frustrated everyoneemerged suddenly as a real world-class talent. I cannot explain the change in Vini, its a mystery, one source close to the dressing room toldThe Athleticin October. Even Ancelotti himself has been surprised. The youngsters form had ebbed and flowed through the months, but over the season his finishing has become top-class.
The real star of the show though was Benzema, who had 13 goals and seven assists in his first 16 La Liga games of the season. Approaching his 34th birthday, he was constantly involved in the play, and consistently providing decisive contributions, Benzema makes the whole team play, a source close to an admiring teammate said. The purple patch through the autumn, just as Madrid were taking a decisive lead in the title race, saw him reach maybe the best level of his whole career.
The sides other key player was at the other end of the pitch.
GoalkeeperCourtois was also playing phenomenally well, with superb reflex saves crucial to victories against Sevilla and Bilbao. Alaba and Militao also quickly built an excellent central defensive partnership. The younger Brazilian used his physicality and aggression to aggressively challenge out in front, while the experienced Austrian quietly used his athleticism and nous to sweep behind.
There were problems at full-back, where injury and loss of form meant that none of Dani Carvajal, Ferland Mendy, Lucas Vazquez or Marcelo were really reliable options. But the teams general shape and work rate meant that very few opponents were able to take advantage.
I liked how we were defensively, Ancelotti said in early December. The deep defensive block suits us, we dont have midfielders to defend in open spaces. It is less aesthetic but we are doing very well. I dont mind not having possession, you dont win by having possession. You win by scoring goals.
Meanwhile, their challengers were falling away. Barcelona were down in mid-table as their president, Joan Laporta, dallied over sacking floundering coach Ronald Koeman. Atletico were woefully inconsistent as Diego Simeone kept changing his tactics and line-ups. OnlyLopeteguis solid and methodical Sevillawere making any kind of challenge. But Madrid had an eight-point gap at the top during the winter break. Real Betis were third, and Rayo Vallecano fourth. It was not really a title race at all.
This sense of inevitability was shaken when Madrid came back from the winter break and promptly lost 1-0 at neighbours Getafe. It should not have been cause for any immediate worry; it was just their second La Liga defeat of the season, and they were still five points ahead of Sevilla, with Barca and Atletico far in the distance.
But it did bring up ghosts of previous seasons, including under Ancelotti in 2013-14 and 2014-15, when the team had run out of steam in the second half of their La Liga campaigns. Alarm bells were primed a few weeks later when Madrid were 2-0 down to relegation strugglers Elche at the Bernabeu with time almost up. Modrics penalty and then Militaos injury-time header rescued a point and steadied nerves.
The biggest lesson from that game was Hazard, who had been given a rare start, confirming he wasno longer at the required competitive level. Ancelotti continued to trust just a relatively small core of players. Everyone knew 10 of his preferred XI the only doubt was over Rodrygo or Marco Asensio on the right wing. Not rotating at all ran the risk, for some critics, of flogging older players like Modric, Benzema and Kroos too hard, and running out of gas when the really decisive games came. After Benzemas late goal squeaked Madrid a 1-0 win at Rayo Vallecano in late February, it was pointed out that, despite having such an expensively assembled squad, only one team in La Liga had given less playing time to substitutes.
That turned the spotlight onto those players not being used. Throughout the season, there were occasional incidents as players showed their unhappiness at Ancelottis selections. Dani Ceballos was publicly upset at only getting a couple of minutes in a Copa del Rey game at third-tier Alcoyano in January. Bale was spotted laughing on camera as Hazard warmed up but was not used during the Copa exit at Bilbao a few weeks later. Even Kroos made his unhappiness clear when subbed off against Chelsea in Champions League quarter-final second leg.
Gareth Bale laughing at Eden Hazard after Hazard was sent back to the bench in the 2nd half even though hes been warming up for 30 minutes