How Carlo Ancelotti ended Real Madrid’s 12-year wait for La Decima
Cristiano Ronaldo, Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane waved goodbye to Real Madrid as three of the most decorated and successful signings in the club’s illustrious history.
But they were not preordained to lift European trophy after European trophy. There was a time, in the not too distant past, when there were serious questions to be asked of Florentino Perez’s second Galacticos project.
In the summer of 2009, Perez returned for a second stint as president after three years away.
Under Ramon Calderon, Los Blancos won back-to-back league titles (the first and only time they’ve done so since the legendary Quinta del Buitre side of the 80s won five in a row) in 2006-07 and 2007-08, reasserting their domestic dominance at a time when Barcelona were European champions and Sevilla were a serious force to contend with.
Madrid were back on top in Spain, but still some way off regaining the European crown that defines the club. After winning three Champions League titles in five years between 1998 and 2002, there was a sharp and stark decline; a semi-final exit, then a quarter-final exit, then, unthinkably, six successive eliminations at the first knockout hurdle.
The 2008-09 campaign – Pep Guardiola’s first in charge of Barcelona, ending with the first treble in the history of Spanish football – saw Juande Ramos’ Madrid humiliated by Rafael Benitez’s Liverpool at the Round of 16, with a 1-0 home defeat followed by a 4-0 mauling at Anfield.
Midway through that season to forget, Calderon resigned after a controversial and deeply unpopular reign, defined by his failure to deliver top targets like Ronaldo and Kaka. The presentation of Klaas-Jan Huntelaar in January 2009 – 12 days before Calderon’s resignation – was met by chants of “where’s Ronaldo?”.
Former vice-president Vicente Boluda took the reigns until the end of the season, but he was only keeping the seat warm for Calderon’s old nemesis Perez, the architect of the original Galacticos project, who was emphatically elected for a second stint. Unlike his predecessor, this was a man who tended to get what he wanted and could deliver his promises.
And sure enough, Kaka walked through the door for a world-record €67million fee. Within a matter of days, they broke the record a second time, finally getting their hands on Ronaldo, paying Manchester United an astronomical €94million. Karim Benzema and Xabi Alonso also joined for a further €35million each.
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It was a statement summer, the biggest spending spree in the history of football. Many were calling Pep’s Barca the greatest ever, but they were to be matched by a lavishly assembled set of stars.
Manuel Pellegrini was appointed and swiftly delivered results; his 75% win percentage is the best of any full-time coach in the club’s history, while 96 points in La Liga was also a new record.
But it wasn’t enough to deliver a trophy; champions Barcelona finished three points ahead, and there were dispiritingly familiar early exits in the Copa del Rey and Champions League.
Then came Jose Mourinho, “this year’s Galactico” according to Perez, fresh from leading Inter to the Champions League at Barcelona’s expense.
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And Mourinho did what he was brought in to do: knock Barcelona off their perch. He led Madrid to their first trophy in three years with a hard-fought 1-0 victory over the Catalans in the Copa del Rey final, and despite being bested by Guardiola’s men in the big two trophies, they returned even better in the Portuguese coach’s second season with a stunning 100-point, 121-goal title win.
That European honour remained elusive, but there was progress. Under Mourinho, Madrid made it to three straight Champions League semi-finals, following the many disappointing defeats to Lyon and falls at the first knockout hurdle.
But that was as far as they’d go. First, there was the Clasico defeat, then – while Mourinho’s Madrid were producing irresistible football in La Liga, with a strong shout as the best side in Europe – a penalty shootout defeat to Bayern Munich. The third and final year, which infamously descended into a toxic mess, ended with Robert Lewandowski running riot with four goals for Jurgen Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund.
Four years into Perez’s return and the second Galacticos era, Madrid had won just one league title and one Copa del Rey. They briefly looked the sum of their parts under Mourinho before swiftly burning out. Come 2013, it was 11 years since their last appearance in a Champions League final.
Having pumped roughly €400million into the squad, it wasn’t quite what the president would have envisaged when signing off cheque after cheque.
Enter Carlo Ancelotti. “His style and character fits the profile of this club perfectly. He is a proper football man, an intelligent man and a natural winner,” said Florentino Perez upon his arrival. “He is the coach our directors and members wanted the most and he was also the coach I wanted the most.”
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The Italian, who took Milan to three Champions League finals and won two, was backed just as strongly as his predecessors. In came Gareth Bale, Isco and Asier Illarramendi for a combined €150million – adding to the likes of Luka Modric and Varane, brought in the latter years of Mourinho’s reign. Barcelona, meanwhile, had won the race to sign Neymar from Santos.
Things started promisingly enough. Madrid took 16 points from 18 available in the Champions League group, while come the halfway stage of the La Liga campaign they’d won 15 of 19 – their only defeats coming to title rivals Barcelona and Diego Simeone’s nascent Atletico Madrid, who had shown their teeth with a 2-1 victory over Los Blancos in the previous year’s Copa del Rey final, denying Mourinho any kind of fond farewell.
Come mid-March, Ancelotti’s Madrid were flying; unbeaten in 17, top of the league, 22 wins from 28 in the league.
Alonso and Modric were clicking together in midfield, dictating the tempo of games, as Real moved away from Mourinho’s trusty old 4-2-3-1 and into more of a dynamic, front-foot 4-3-3. The Bale-Benzema-Cristiano ‘BBC’ front three were living up to their weighty collective price tag, regularly combining to put three, four and five past the opposition.
They were strong favourites against a flagging Barcelona come Ancelotti’s second Clasico. But in a feisty, full-blooded clash at the Bernabeu, Tato Martino’s Barcelona came twice from behind – in large part thanks to a Ramos red and a Lionel Messi hat-trick – to win 4-3 and ensure it would remain a three-horse race come the final weeks. Atleti weren’t going anywhere, either.
A 2-1 defeat to Sevilla followed, but Madrid rallied to win their next four league games via an aggregate scoreline of 17-0.
That run also saw them beat Barcelona 2-1 in a Copa del Rey final that will live long in the memory due to Gareth Bale’s wondrous extra-time match-winner, alongside a counterattacking masterclass to beat Guardiola’s Bayern Munich 5-0 on aggregate, scoring four in the second leg of the Champions League semi in Bavaria.
— UEFA Champions League (@ChampionsLeague) April 29, 2019
At the first time of asking, Ancelotti had taken Madrid that one step further than predecessor Mourinho – and with ruthlessly efficient style, too. Come May, the prospect of a treble beckoned.
It wasn’t to be. Just as they’d built up a head of steam they somehow conspired to drop seven points to Valencia, Real Valladolid and Celta Vigo, reducing them to spectators as Barcelona and Atletico played out a title decider on the final day of the La Liga season.
Real’s 3-1 victory over Espanyol was rendered moot as their historically overshadowed city rivals dug deep for a 1-1 draw at the Camp Nou, celebrating wildly as they’d done the unthinkable and broken the big two’s duopoly. And it was the newly-crowned champions of Spain that were awaiting Ancelotti’s side in Portugal.
Putting faith in brilliant players was a largely successful strategy for Ancelotti. His Madrid had shown their winning mettle with Copa victories over Atletico and Barcelona, while they scored 17 knockout goals in their Champions League victories over Bundesliga trio Schalke, Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich en route to the final.
But Simeone’s Atletico had something about them that season; their steeliness remained unwavering through to the decisive final seconds of the La Liga title race, and it was on show in the Champions League final as they fought tooth and nail to hang onto their slender one-goal lead, gained midway through the first half as Diego Godin’s looping header caught out Iker Casillas.
Even as Real built momentum, Atletico did as they had done all season and repelled wave after wave of attack. Come the third minute of injury time, with their lead still intact, they might just have allowed themselves to believe.
— TheRMadridTV (@TheRMadridTV) May 24, 2020
But then Modric whipped in a corner at a perfect height, Ramos rose highest to head home the equaliser, and the rest is history. Atletico had given all they could and inevitably succumbed to three further extra-time goals.
Madrid had done it, and Ancelotti had delivered it in his first season. La Decima. The fabled tenth.
The Italian’s second season ended in disappointment as Barcelona won another treble. But he had instilled a winning, never-say-die mentality that remained as former assistant Zinedine Zidane took the reigns and led Los Blancos to a further three successive Champions Leagues between 2016 and 2018.
Zidane’s Madrid weren’t always great. They often weren’t even good. But they always found a way to win in Europe.
But that all began with Ancelotti. And that Ramos’ header at 92:48.
By Nestor Watach