Schalke v Real Madrid: Carlo Ancelotti has Gareth Bale, Cristiano Ronaldo and the Galacticos purring again after a tough baptism
A Different League: Ahead of their Champions League game against Schalke, the Spaniards are on a run of 26 matches unbeaten in all competitions
Wednesday 26 February 2014
"Ninety days," says Carlo Ancelotti in an interview due to be screened in Spain tomorrow night.
"You're counting the days? You make it sound like a prison sentence," asks Canal Plus journalist Nacho Aranda. And the Real Madrid manager puts his best Italian coach's head on and starts to talk about how, having built the outside of the house, he now just needs to furnish it properly.
It is actually 88 days until the Champions League final in Lisbon and Madrid are playing like a side who already have all the fittings and furnishings in place. They go into their game against Schalke on a run of 26 matches unbeaten in all competitions, having won 22 of those, and are alone at the top of the Spanish table for the first time in 20 months.
It was not always shaping up this way. Ancelotti appeared to deliver his first press conference as Madrid coach in Esperanto. The man who has won leagues in Italy, France and England was asked questions in those three languages and was at times incoherent as he switched between the three and the Spanish he was still learning. The problems he was to inherit were stacking up too.
The club wanted him to change the counter-attacking style to a more elaborate passing game closer to that played by Barcelona and Spain; and yet they had just bought him Gareth Bale, one of the world's most effective counter-attacking players, and sold Mesut Özil.
It was also clear that Bale's best position was on the left – exactly where Cristiano Ronaldo played.
He had two top-class goalkeepers, Iker Casillas and Diego Lopez, who both wanted to play. There was pressure to field young midfielder Isco to appease fans who wanted a more "Spanish" Real Madrid. And he was obliged to pick Asier Illaramendi who had cost €30m (£24.7m) and would replace Xabi Alonso, who had not been offered a new deal. A lesser manager might have stumbled but not Ancelotti.
Bale was switched to the right and when that meant he unjustly displaced Angel Di Maria, Ancelotti redeployed the Argentine in a deeper midfield position. Isco has barely been used, but the supporters' patriotic thirst has been quenched by 21-year-old Jese, who Ancelotti says could still make the Spain squad for this World Cup.
As for those demands for a more elaborate style, Madrid now play a refined mixture of the two. They can break quickly, they can shoot from distance and they can pass through teams, with Alonso, whose deal was renewed on Ancelotti's personal request, back at the hub of everything.
Madrid even raced to 100 goals under Ancelotti in just 38 competitive matches. Defensively, meanwhile, they have kept 20 clean sheets this season.
The keeper situation has been sorted with Lopez in goal in the league and Casillas playing cup and Champions League games, where he has gone 862 minutes without conceding a goal.
Through all this Ancelotti has remained the personification of calm. "I usually get to work about 9.30 in the morning because I like to have a little bit of a lie-in," he told journalists at a recent open day.
He says he speaks Spanish to the players and only repeats himself if he sees from their blank expressions that they have not understood. He says it is hard to transmit passion in a second language and admits the rollickings are given in Italian, adding: "They understand." But it is difficult to imagine there are too many.
Real Madrid have won only once in 25 attempts in Germany in European competition, but Ancelotti has gone nine games unbeaten against German teams in Europe.
As twice a winner as a player, and twice a winner as a coach, he also knows how to win the European Cup. He is counting the days. But he's doing it calmly, as only Carlo can.
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