Thursday 18 January 2018

Showdown in Madrid as Ancelotti faces his most fearsome foe

Carlo Ancelotti: 'One of the best memories of my career involves a match against Atletico'
Carlo Ancelotti: 'One of the best memories of my career involves a match against Atletico'

Ian Hawkey

It takes a lot to spook the most successful and apparently serene coach in the history of the Champions League. Go through the list of Carlo Ancelotti's supposed nemeses over the years and sooner or later he overcomes them.

It used to be Liverpool, against whom his club, Roma, lost a European Cup final when he was a player, and who left him bewildered in his AC Milan technical area on an extraordinary night in Istanbul. Time healed.

Ancelotti went on to win the Champions League for the second time as a coach against Liverpool.

In Italy, Juventus became a stubborn, awkward rival when Ancelotti, briefly in charge at Juve, started at Milan. Come the big confrontation, the first all-Italian Champions League final, his team triumphed.

So when Ancelotti is asked about the opponents who have caused him the most sustained and concentrated difficulties in his 21 months at Real Madrid, he feels the need to remind that in his personal scrap book Atletico Madrid, like Juventus or Liverpool, hold a prized, special place, not a only a dreaded one.


"One of the best memories of my career involves a match against Atletico," he said.

The memory should be fresh enough. The European Cup final of 2014, in Lisbon, when Real Madrid's 4-1 win over Atletico made Ancelotti the first manager this century to achieve three triumphs in the Champions League, must cast some shadow over the re-run in this year's quarter-final, whose first leg takes place tomorrow.

But its emphatic scoreline has, in the last 11 months, come to look as if it masks as much as it glorifies.

Ancelotti's nemesis since he came to work in Spain is very clearly defined.

It is not Barcelona, but an institution much closer on the map and above all a coach with Tom Waits features and some of the growl who again and again unsettles, and disarms, Real Madrid's expensive assembly of individual talents.

Put it to Diego Simeone that tomorrow's match offers the opportunity to avenge Lisbon, and he is entitled to answer that he has done so six times already.

Foremost in the half-dozen reasons to regard Atletico as favourites to make the Champions League semi-finals is the last Madrid derby - they steamrollered Real 4-0 at the Vicente Calderon in February.

Ancelotti had not coached any side to such a heavy loss for over a decade. "This will be a different game," said Ancelotti after Saturday's 3-0 La Liga victory over Eibar. "But that last match will be a motivation."

So, presumably, would their pasting in the Copa del Rey in January when Atletico won 4-2 aggregate. They struck two of those goals at the Bernabeu, just as they had done to win 2-1 there in La Liga last September.

A one-off? Hardly. In August, Atletico lifted the Spanish Super Cup, beating Real 2-1 over two legs.

In sum: six meetings this season, four wins for Simeone, none for Ancelotti.

As alarming to Real as the sequence, and the rising margins of victory, has been how the more Atletico seem to take Real by surprise.

The last encounter at the Bernabeu started with a goal in the first minute, scored by Fernando Torres on the break. Torres repeated the ambush by scoring 60 seconds into the second half.

Atletico have a habit of striking early in their derbies, a symptom of the intensity Simeone cultivates around these fixtures.

When he was appointed Atletico's coach in late 2011, he made it a priority to treat the club's obvious neuroses about the great white ogre from the across the city.

Until very recently, the Real-Atletico rivalry had almost ceased to be a rivalry. From 1999 to 2013, Atleti could not summon a single win against Real.

It was in May 2013, that Atletico faced Real in a Copa del Rey final at the Bernabeu.

Forget the long, luckless Liga run against Real, he told his players: "We have to develop the idea that Cup games are different, that we're a club that likes Cups, that it doesn't stretch belief we can win a Cup tie at the Bernabeu."

Atletico could. They triumphed 2-1. A curse had been lifted. Twelve months later, they stopped being just a 'club that likes cups', and won La Liga, Real back in third place.

Then came Lisbon, where Atletico held the lead until the 89th minute, conceded a goal to Sergio Ramos that clawed Real into extra-time, during which three further Real goals distorted the result.

Or at least that's the story Simeone retells his players - a group who have now gone nine hours of football with the upper hand over their neighbours.

(© Daily Telegraph, London)

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