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May 6, 2014

Ancelotti and Mourinho are born survivors

If football today deals more than ever in absolutes, then the Champions League's final stages are the most unforgiving background for definitive judgements. The big winner after the semifinals is Carlo Ancelotti, with Jose Mourinho in direct and unflattering comparison with his immediate successor at Real Madrid.

It was an opinion underlined in the aftermath of that triumphant night in Munich by Mourinho's countryman Cristiano Ronaldo, with the two having been allies when it was mutually advantageous but whose relationship lacked the warmth that some had assumed was there because of a shared nationality.

"Ancelotti deserves all the credit," Ronaldo told the media after the match. "He has changed everything. He has changed the mentality of the players." In terms of the result and the elan with which it was achieved after three years stalled at the last four under Mourinho, there is little argument. It was the boot on the other foot after Bayern's counter-attack dismantling of Barcelona the previous year, except there had been little sustained suggestion that Pep Guardiola's side were fading from grandeur in the manner of the Catalans.

Yet the very nature of Real's efficiency in picking off Bayern on the break suggested the traces of Mourinho's tenure at the Bernabeu are still very much present in the DNA of Ancelotti's side. The two coaches may be poles apart both in terms of demeanour and reputation, but they share a sense of the pragmatic, and of rolling with the strengths of the set of players available to them rather than imposing dogma. With Ronaldo and Gareth Bale both on board, certain tactics are simply made to measure. In recent weeks, Ancelotti has switched between the 4-3-3 which seems a natural fit and the 4-4-2 which served him so well at Paris Saint-Germain; an alternation in formation that Mourinho, incidentally, used to good effect at Porto.

What is clear is that Ancelotti's arrival has lent a certain freshness to the Bernabeu dressing room after the sometimes unbearable tension of Mourinho's reign. Ancelotti is a far more natural Real Madrid manager than Mourinho, certainly. He is politically adroit, tactful yet firm when he needs to be. It is why their president Florentino Perez continued grinding through negotiations with an intransigent Paris Saint-Germain last summer long after others would have given up.

In this sense, he is the absolute opposite of his predecessor. It is hard to judge whether the biggest miracle is that Mourinho lasted three whole years or that a coach as headstrong as him ended up at the Bernabeu under Perez in the first place. The sense of relief, of being able to breathe, that provoked Ronaldo's post-Bayern assessment, showed that sometimes a change is needed.

The suggestion that Mourinho's spell in the Spanish capital was a failure is almost laughable, but has gained traction in some circles. Mourinho's listing in his Friday news conference last week of his achievements at Real Madrid (primarily against Barcelona, "the best team in the world") are easy to dismiss as typical self-aggrandisement, but they are not without merit. What the Portuguese mockingly referred to as "the four bad seasons of my career" -- the three in Madrid, followed by this first campaign back at Chelsea -- have indeed contained more highlights than most coaches get to sniff in an entire career.

Ancelotti's own greatest hits are impressive, yet his title as a Champions League specialist is partly coloured by his glorious history in the competition as a player with Milan (ultimately a footnote bearing no relation to his managerial capabilities) -- and his relative lack of domestic championship wins. Last season's Ligue 1 title with PSG was Ancelotti's third in a coaching career spanning a touch under two decades, an underwhelming return for someone of his skill and versatility. Mourinho has seven in a career coming up to the 14-year mark.

The major difference is plain; that Mourinho's unapologetically results-first style becomes less tolerable when results aren't perfect, and that he becomes considerably less gracious when that is the situation. Ancelotti is more publically even-tempered. That doesn't make his victories worth more, but it does make people more inclined to give him credit.

They are, however, more alike than some would recognise, and are this season on different sides of the fine margins that they have both experienced the good and bad of before. One wonders how different Ancelotti's career would be had Milan held their 2005 Champions League lead against Liverpool, or how Mourinho's tense time at Inter would have been perceived had his 2010 Treble winners succumbed to considerable Bayern pressure in the Madrid final.

Their migratory paths are less a question of ability than the landscape of the modern game. Not only is there no more patience for fallow, trophyless spells at the world's biggest clubs (Wenger's integral role in Arsenal's stadium move and ensuing financial reordering makes him an exception), but there is not the patience inside the dressing rooms, filled with multinational stars who largely feel they are entitled to their say.

Players simply stop listening to the same old voice after a while, and even shock tactics lose their capability to grab the attention. "When you bang your fist on the table," as Roberto Carlos once said of former Real Madrid coach Jose Antonio Camacho, "you just hurt your hand. And eventually, you break the table."

They are experiencing diverse fortunes at the moment, but drawing conclusions on their worth based on recent months would be foolhardy. Both Ancelotti and Mourinho would recognise as much, publically or privately. They are survivors, at the very least.