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May 23, 2014

Calm Ancelotti perfect to lead La Decima charge

The big, big, biggest game of the season has arrived! The Champions League, the competition to determine the best team in Europe, contested by two teams from Madrid. Anthony Richardson and Ian Fiveankles bring you all the news from the Estadio Da Luz

Behind Carlo Ancelotti's desk, there is a particularly conspicuous picture: It is the Italian holding the Champions League trophy [a feat he has accomplished twice, in 2003 and 2007]. Ancelotti has never hidden his fascination with the competition, and has frequently spoken of the "fantastic tradition" imbued in him at AC Milan, where it has always been valued far above any other silverware.

That feeling is reminiscent of the obsession with the European Cup [now Champions League] at Real Madrid, where they are chasing a historic 10th victory for La Decima. Should Real come through and win against city rivals Atletico in Lisbon on Saturday, Ancelotti will not just be holding that trophy again, he will also have matched the competition record for a manager; tied on three with Liverpool's Bob Paisley.

Ancelotti reaching that landmark would be entirely appropriate, given the Italian's history with the Champions League. It would be also be somewhat out of place, however, given the managerial gold standard such a feat obviously represents. Three Champions League titles is the record that all of Sir Alex Ferguson, Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola have been chasing, but there is one area where the Real Madrid coach badly trails all those titans: domestic title wins.

A third European trophy would actually match the number of league titles that Ancelotti has won in a 19-year career -- with Milan in 2004; Chelsea in 2010; Paris Saint-Germain in 2013. That domestic record is hardly great, especially when you consider that 15 of those years were spent at some of Europe's biggest clubs. For this reason there has always been a bit of a contradiction to his career.

In eight years at Milan, Ancelotti won the Champions League twice and Italian title just once, also reaching the final of the continental competition as often as he finished in Serie A's top two. The exciting manner of his Premier League and FA Cup double at Chelsea in 2009-10 was hugely impressive but, like his single other title in Paris, couldn't exactly be considered a truly special triumph given the immense resources available.

This season almost summed up that enduring contradiction as Ancelotti's Real side brilliantly blazed into the Champions League final but badly wilted in the domestic run-in, winning just one of their final four games to fall out of contention and hand the title impetus to Atletico.

This weekend, Ancelotti could secure one of the game's great achievements, but doubts remain over whether he is a truly great manager. Still, that would be nothing new in the history of the European Cup. No-one now really talks about Jose Villalonga, Luis Carniglia [both Real Madrid], or Dettmar Cramer [Bayern Munich]. They have become almost forgotten figures on the continent at large, yet all three have won UEFA's great trophy twice.

Of course that is not to diminish the achievements of those managers, but it does reflect the reality that the Champions League is simply so much more open to fortune and freak circumstances than a domestic campaign. As many managers have attested in the past, a league campaign provides the fairest possible gauge of a team's worth over the course of a season, but the European Cup can often defy measurement. The latter can be instantly decided by dramatic swings of "sheer luck," as Ancelotti has himself said.

His own history in the competition reflects this. The Italian's best team was probably at Milan in 2003-04 and 2004-05 but neither season saw him win the Champions League. Instead, he endured two of his worst collapses, as both Deportivo La Coruna and Liverpool overturned three-goal deficits in two separate sensational fixtures.

His 2002-03 win meanwhile came on the back of a penalty shootout against a Juventus team that had lifted that season's Italian title, while Rafa Benitez offered a telling take on the 2007 final, when Milan gained revenge on Liverpool with a 2-1 win. "They were maybe a bit better than us in 2005, but we won," the former Anfield boss said. "We were better in Athens [in 2007] and lost."

This is not to say Ancelotti's achievements have just been lucky. Far from it. Indeed, there is a strong argument that his qualities as a coach are especially suited to the Champions League above all else. His response to the traumatic defeat of 2005 was revealing, as explained in his own autobiography; Ancelotti went back to basics, almost literally.

"We had to gather up all the shattered pieces of us, ourselves, and our team, and reassemble them," Ancelotti wrote. "It was the most complicated puzzle I ever faced. It was in that period I went back to find my thesis I had written for my master's degree at Coverciano to become a fully accredited first-class soccer coach. I flipped through the pages, going directly to the chapter on psychology."

Carlo Ancelotti and Diego Simeone will fight for the biggest prize in club football.
Carlo Ancelotti and Diego Simeone will fight for the biggest prize in club football.
Psychology has always been one of the Italian's core qualities, as only emphasised by the manner in which he has calmly adapted to facilitate so many different owners, stars and tactical formations.

"The coach," Ancelotti wrote. "Must have faith in his ideas, must keep him from wavering, must remain confident in his convictions but, above all, must be aware that he has a group of players that is following him and approves his choices."

That has never been a problem for him. It is very difficult to find a player who talks critically of Ancelotti, even among those he discarded.

Speaking to ESPN FC in the build-up to the final, former Chelsea midfielder Deco revealed: "He just knows how to talk to players."

They are sentiments echoed by so many others, from Andrea Pirlo to David Beckham. "Carlo Ancelotti's man-management skills are exceptional," Beckham told The Sun a few years ago. "Every single one of the Milan players adores him."

Those close to the Italian say he feels it is counter-productive to impose extreme order and discipline on players, that he treats them maturely. At the same time, he is known for always maintaining calm regardless of the situation, thereby lessening the pressure.

With all of that, Ancelotti is pretty much precisely what this Real Madrid team required after the rancour of Mourinho's time in charge. The Italian is also almost the anti-Mourinho, given how the Portuguese looks to generate maximum intensity at all times. With a squad like Real's, that proved unsustainable. Now, Ancelotti has kept them ticking over nicely.

The flip side to Ancelotti's style is that the pace can slow over the course of an entire league campaign. Something else is sometimes needed, which perhaps explains why Ancelotti's league record is comparatively poor. There isn't often that deeper drive.

Ahead of the Champions League final, however, the Italian may be exactly what Real Madrid require. The drive to win La Decima is evident, the extreme pressure on the club only increasing, particularly now that Atletico Madrid have already validated their season by winning a first league title in 18 years.

While Diego Simeone's squad will approach Lisbon with clear mind, Ancelotti's will be complicated by so much talk of history. The Real squad will not need reminding of the stakes, nor to be hyped up. Instead, they will need some serenity, someone to hit the appropriate tone. Ancelotti may just be picture-perfect and it may well lead to that perfect Champions League achievement.