1. Going for the jugular

Going for the jugular

Real Madrid were the crowned champions of Europe in May. Four months later, they had slipped down to 13th in La Liga. But coach Ancelotti kept calm and made his team a cohesive force again

By: | Published: November 2, 2014 12:38 AM

Anfield is not a friendly place if you’re a Liverpool adversary. It can become very intimidating at times when the Kop starts singing You’ll Never Walk Alone. Even Real Madrid, the world’s biggest club in terms of success, had never scored there in their past three attempts. Carlo Ancelotti’s side, however, is different.
For a team that had won the ‘Decima’ (10th European Cup title) last season, it was important to set the record straight. Ninety minutes of spell-binding football helped them do that. Liverpool were hammered 3-0 at home in the Champions League fixture on October 22.
Anfield respects class. The fans stood up to applaud the visitors. The men in white played football at a different level. Even the die-hard Reds had to acknowledge that.
El Clasico arrived on the heels of the Champions League game. Madrid conceded early, but then raised their game to such a level that Barcelona became almost a non-entity; 3-1 was the final scoreline. It could have been a lot more.
Ancelotti’s countenance gives away very little about what’s going through his mind. Deep down, however, he must have had the satisfaction of bringing in stability after early-season volatility.
Madrid were the crowned champions of Europe in May. Four months down the line, they had slipped down to 13th in La Liga. Atletico Madrid defeated them in the Spanish Super Cup. Angel Di Maria and Xabi Alonso left for Manchester United and Bayern Munich, respectively. James Rodriguez and Toni Kroos were brought in, but Madrid were struggling to get into the groove. Bernabeu was sensing uneasiness.
Ancelotti kept calm and made his team a cohesive force again. And on the big day, they sliced their arch rivals to ribbons. Also, this was the first time since 2008 that Madrid had beaten Barcelona by more than a solitary goal in the League.
Barcelona look top-heavy at the moment. The Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar axis can still give opposition defence sleepless nights. But the Catalans are weak at the back following Carles Puyol’s retirement. Xavi at 34—for so long he had been the conductor—is completely over the heels. A big rebuilding is needed at Camp Nou. This column, however, is not about Barcelona’s frailties. It is about the rise and rise of Madrid under Ancelotti.
Cristiano Ronaldo is the jewel in the crown for this Madrid side. He needs just one more goal to equal Raul’s record of 71 in the Champions League. But the best thing that has happened to the Los Blancos is the arrival of Kroos. He has been making a telling impact.
The 24-year-old German is Di Maria and Alonso rolled into one. At Anfield, he made his Liverpool midfield counterparts look like novices. At Bernabeu, he subdued Messi. Kroos’ strength lies in creating free spaces in the opposition final-third. His anticipation is remarkable as also the ability to stay one step ahead of his markers.
“Toni Kroos’ performance was perfect. He was quick and clear in everything he did,” Ancelotti had said after Madrid’s Uefa Super Cup win in August. The Italian is a master of understatement. Someone more emotional would have brought out the superlatives; £24 million that Madrid gave Bayern Munich for Kroos’ transfer now looks like a bargain. Rodriguez, too, has seamlessly fitted into Madrid’s style. Yes, Ancelotti had to tweak to accommodate the Colombian; 4-3-3 has now become 4-4-2 and the £63-million buy (fourth-biggest transfer ever) is thriving in the new system.
Spare a thought for Isco as well. The little, bearded midfielder’s link-up play was phenomenal both against Liverpool and Barcelona. Anfield gave him a standing ovation when he was substituted. The 22-year-old is playing because Gareth Bale is out injured. But the way he has been performing, Bale will have to win back his place, a £85.3-million price tag notwithstanding.
Left-back Marcelo has been a revelation. The Brazilian always enjoyed moving forward down the flanks. Now, he has added defensive qualities to his game. It’s early days, but Madrid look set for back-to-back Champions League titles. If they go the distance, they will be the first team to achieve the feat since Milan did it 25 years ago.
Ancelotti has already won the Champions League five times, twice as a player and three times as manager. If he can defend the crown this season, he would be on a par with Francisco Gento—another Real Madrid legend.
The 55-year-old was much aggrieved at the start of the season when Di Maria was sold off against his wish. Even Ronaldo had criticised the move. But Ancelotti avoided confrontation with the board and handled the situation with dignity. “I had to fix things,” he admitted. But the manager didn’t apply a quick-fix, allowing his players to take time and get into the rhythm. Madrid now play like a well-oiled machine, churning out spectacular performances.
Just one point separates the top three teams in La Liga after nine games. Barcelona lead the chart with 22 points. Sevilla are second on goal difference, while Madrid are placed third with 21 points. A lot will change in the coming days. Ancelotti knows that. He’s preparing his side for May. On current form, the League title would be Madrid’s to lose.
On the continent, however, they might find their match in Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea. Still seven months to go, but how about a Champions League final between Madrid and Chelsea in Berlin? It would be mouth-watering!

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