Tuesday 12 December 2017

The spirit of Stein shining through as Ancelotti and Simeone prepare for battle

Atletico Madrid coach Diego Simeone and Real Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti
Atletico Madrid coach Diego Simeone and Real Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti

John Lawton

It just happens there is something in the air in Lisbon, something to stir the very heart and soul of football and, even if it wasn't so, tonight's Champions League final between Real and Atletico of Madrid might well encourage the idea.

As it is, we have a number of quite stunning precedents.

Forty seven years on, the brave and unforgettable triumph of homegrown Celtic over the rich and powerful Internazionale is still a landmark of adventure and nerve.

Two years earlier, the teenaged George Best produced his single most staggering performance as he was christened the Fifth Beatle in the home of great players like Eusebio and Coluna and Simoes.

Now, Cristiano Ronaldo, officially the world's best player returns to the capital of his homeland intent on rivalling or, who knows, surpassing such glory.

If this isn't a prospect sensational enough for most aficionados of the game, there is surely an added lustre.

It is the sense that in their different ways, the rival coaches Carlo Ancelotti and Diego Simeone have struck huge blows for the integrity of an often embattled football culture which has found again in Spain its most brilliant expression.


With his charismatic sharpshooter Diego Costa now expected to play after fears he would miss out with a hamstring injury, the 44-year-old Argentinian Simeone hardly takes a breath while re-asserting what he believes to be the core values of his extraordinary success since taking over Madrid's second club just three years ago.

Five titles, including La Liga, have not only split the dominance of Barcelona and Real, but now threatens the latter's obsession with winning a 10th European Cup title.

It if happens, he says it will be an achievement born of the kind of fierce team unity which is so often threatened by a combination of greed and celebrity.

Here is Simeone celebrating last weekend's La Liga triumph in a Madrid plaza filled with ecstatic supporters: "We made such progress because we have put the team above everything – and it is an attitude that if maintained gives us a unique opportunity in Lisbon.

"We built up this situation gradually. This was growth, day by day, and it is the best thing a team can experience.

"If we stick with this base of humility and work and the conviction that no-one is more important than anybody else within the team, if we go forward with the same determination of building a competitive team, then we will be ready to keep growing as we have up until this day.

"The praise that you give us is always nice, but in the end it is the facts of achievement which count.

"Facts about our determination and organisation – and our ability not to give Real any of the advantages that can be created by their very good players in what I expect to be a beautiful game."

If the sentiments are high flown it cannot be said, at least thus far, that they are fanciful. Simeone, a ruthlessly hard performer for Argentina, has, in his dark clothes and cultivated stubble, the demeanour of a natural-born enforcer of his own will.

Yet, if his effect is intense, his values seem as essentially benign as those of his amiable rival Ancelotti.

At 54, Ancelotti has reacted to his brutal sacking by Chelsea with fresh evidence of style and laid-back authority at first Paris St Germain and now the Bernabeu.

He is credited with sweeping away the toxic residue of the reign of Jose Mourinho, one which in the end brought immovable obstacles between the special coach and the ultimately under-performing Galactico players.

Ronaldo has been particularly effusive, saying: "Ancelotti deserves all the credit. He has challenged everything we did in the past and he has changed the mentality of the players."

The great Paolo Maldini, who played under Ancelotti at AC Milan when the Champions League title and Serie A were gathered in, is an equally committed admirer.

He declared: "Of all the coaches I had, he was the one who managed the dressing-room with most serenity.

"The secret of our success was his normality. He wasn't one of those who works alone and this shows great intelligence. He knows that he has to include his players in his thinking and that gets the best out of them. It is for this reason that you see he wins titles wherever he goes."

Even Rafael Benitez, who is not famous for uncritical appreciation of touchline rivals, has been quick to praise Ancelotti's achievement at the Real Madrid he knows so well.

Benitez, who beat Ancelotti in the miracle comeback in Istanbul in 2005, then lost to him in Athens two years later, said: "He is a polite educated person, a good professional who knows his work and does it well.

"And, of course, he wins trophies. He is a great coach and a great person who recovered with his arrival the best values of Real Madrid."

Of course, in the end it comes down to the players, the ability of a Ronaldo or Gareth Bale to break open a game or the continued resilience of an Atletico team which ran Chelsea into the ground at Stamford Bridge and had too much competitive discipline for the once luminous Barca in front of their own supporters.

But then this, surely, will be the basis of all the celebration of the work of Ancelotti and Simeone when they send out their troops tonight.


They have allowed their players to play, to express themselves in the way they are best able and so long after the triumph of the great Jock Stein and his Celtic team in 1967 it is possible to hope again for such a victory for an old surviving principle.

One came to Stein, rather than the celebrity coach of his age, Inter's Helenio Herrera, because he put most faith in the natural inclinations of his players.

Herrera was the leading apostle of the bolted door defence and Stein declared: "Celtic will be the first team to bring back the European Cup to British football. We will attack as we have never attacked before."

He was as good as his word as Celtic finally destroyed the fortress Inter tried to build around a 6th minute penalty by Sandro Mazzola.

"That Stein," said his adoring compatriot Bill Shankly, "is the greatest man ever to walk the e arth."

No doubt the winner tonight will have to settle for something less in the way of acclaim. However, they can already be assured that at least they have moved some way in the right direction.

Irish Independent

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