Real Madrid were on the verge of winning La Liga and suddenly appeared to be contenders in the Champions League as well. Three weeks later, the league lead remains intact, thanks to a sloppy, albeit morale-boosting, win over Celta Vigo on Saturday. Ancelotti’s reputation, on the other hand, has all but vanished.After testing positive for Covid last week, Real Madrid was waiting until Tuesday to find out if their coach would be able to travel to the first leg of their Champions League quarter-final against Chelsea on Wednesday.
The outcome of the tie could determine whether he stays as coach next season. It says something about the significance of the Clasico fixture that eight months of largely impressive work can be almost entirely erased by one disastrous 90-minute period. Ancelotti has been chastised for his counter-attacking style, lack of rotation, and, in particular, the manner of Madrid’s passive first-leg defeat by PSG, but a dominant position in La Liga has mostly kept the sceptics at bay.
Losing 0-4 to Barcelona at the Santiago Bernabeu, when Madrid could easily have shipped six or seven goals, has raised concerns, not least because the result served as a foreshadowing of what was to come. Barcelona is 11 points behind Real Madrid in the table, but it is Xavi Hernandez’s resurgent young side that will finish the season as Spain’s strongest team. The Clasico defeat means that winning La Liga may no longer be enough for Ancelotti. With eight games remaining, how they win the title and how they fare against Chelsea will now frame how the first year of Ancelotti’s second tenure is viewed. Florentino Perez, the president of Real Madrid, met with Ancelotti during the international break, and while Perez assured Ancelotti that his future was secure, the need for talks was significant. When Ancelotti was fired by Real Madrid a year after winning the Champions League, he later admitted that the moment he was told to meet Perez, he knew his days were numbered.
Everyone, including Ancelotti and Perez, was taken aback by Ancelotti’s arrival last summer. It was only through a chance conversation between them that the idea began to float and quickly take shape. “It happened quickly,” Ancelotti said during his unveiling. That added to the impression that this was a short-term appointment that could be terminated with little fuss or financial penalty. If there is a breakup this summer, it is unlikely to be acrimonious. Both parties would consider it a success if the league title was won.
However, Ancelotti’s appointment may have reflected the market last summer, when there was a scarcity of top coaches available. Barcelona looked for a replacement for Ronald Koeman but decided on the Dutchman after determining that no one else was suitable. Manchester United retained Ole Gunnar Solskjaer as manager. Juventus reverted to Max Allegri. With Mauricio Pochettino expected to leave PSG this summer, there may be more compelling options. Erik Ten Hag may be ready to leave Ajax, and Raul Gonzalez, Real Madrid’s legendary former striker, will have completed three years with the B team and may be ready to follow Zinedine Zidane’s path.
Depending on the Chelsea ownership situation, even Thomas Tuchel could be enticed. Even if Chelsea’s future has been resolved and Tuchel has been reassured, his presence in this tie is awkward for Ancelotti, the German representing the type of younger, more progressive coach that Madrid has so far avoided but may require if they are to stay ahead of Xavi’s Barcelona.
A strong performance should be enough to persuade Perez that Ancelotti is worth a second season, especially with Mbappe expected to join in the summer. Ancelotti has an enviable track record of bringing out the best in his players. His work with Vinicius Junior, who currently plays in Mbappe’s position, has been transformative.
However, defeat would put Ancelotti in a vulnerable position, compounding the Clasico loss at a time when his critics are gathering ammunition. He will understand that there is no room for error.