Victory would make Real’s Italian ‘finisher’ the most successful manager in history of European Cup
Carlo Ancelotti does not need reminding about what happened on this day 17 years ago. Thoughts of that wild night in Istanbul in 2005 always resurface for the Real Madrid coach in late May but those memories are even more urgent because the 62-year-old is preparing for another Champions League final against Liverpool.
Saturday in Paris will be the third time the Italian has faced the Merseyside club in European football’s showpiece. That first meeting will forever haunt Ancelotti. His Milan side were 3-0 up at half-time in the Ataturk Stadium but lost on penalties after Liverpool’s stunning comeback.
The Serie A team got their revenge two years later but Milan’s 2-1 victory in Athens ranks way down the list of memorable Champions League finals. The drama of Istanbul makes it unforgettable.
Without that blot on his résumé, Ancelotti would already be the most successful manager in European Cup/Champions League history. He has won the trophy three times.
Only Bob Paisley and Real’s very own Zinedine Zidane can boast the same record, although the Liverpool and Real greats both did it in a short time-frame. Paisley’s three cups came over five seasons, Zidane’s over three. Ancelotti has won with two clubs and his first victory was 19 years ago. That is a remarkable record.
The impact of Istanbul lingers, though. When Real were 10 points clear in La Liga in March, Ancelotti brushed off questions that suggested the title race was over by alluding to 2005. How could his team be caught?
“Just like you lose a Champions League final when you’re winning 3-0,” he said. “It’s already happened.”
Even though Ancelotti does not have the same, obsessive, 24/7 approach to the game that characterises some of his peers, he is as competitive as anyone in the sport.
He likes the good things in life but fine food and wine taste even sweeter when you are winning. Defeat leaves a sour flavour.
Istanbul may have been a long time ago but it still illustrates the one tiny weakness in Ancelotti’s managerial career.
He is not a tactician. Other coaches are good at shutting games down when their team is leading but the former Everton manager’s sides tend to be less effective in this department.
“He’s a finisher, not a builder,” one source who worked with him said. “He’s at his best with a group of quality players who know what they’re doing. He’s not going to build, say, a defence from scratch.”
That is something he did not have to do in the Spanish capital. Real’s squad is experienced and talented. His first XI largely picked itself this season.
The main question facing Ancelotti seems to be whether to start Rodrygo, whose contribution to beating Manchester City in the semi-final was massive, or Federico Valverde, who is likelier to track back and make life difficult for Andy Robertson.
Ancelotti’s great talent is getting the right players in the right positions from the start. That lessens the need to strategise during the game.
Trailing 5-3 on aggregate against City in the second leg of the semi, Ancelotti’s substitutions had a ‘s**t-or-bust’ look about them.
They did not turn the game. Pep Guardiola’s team self-destructed and allowed Rodrygo to score twice in the final minutes. City should have put the tie away long before the 90th-minute equaliser on the night and the second goal a minute later that took the game into extra-time.
What Ancelotti does bring to a team is belief. That, combined with a swagger that seems almost instinctive at the Bernabeu and confidence that has been bolstered by five Champions League finals in nine seasons, makes Real formidable opponents.
Ancelotti’s last outing against Liverpool was with Everton, who produced a comfortable 2-0 victory at an empty Anfield during the Covid lockdown last year. That was close to Jurgen Klopp’s lowest point while on Merseyside. They will be a very different proposition in the Stade de France.
Today is a timely reminder for Ancelotti. On Saturday, he has another chance to bury the ghost of Istanbul even deeper and secure his place as the Champions League’s most successful manager.