Carlo Ancelotti suffered a heavier defeat for Real Madrid in the European Cup semifinals. In fact, he scored in a goal. Their record continental defeat came at the San Siro in 1989 against Arrigo Sacchi’s AC Milan, with Ancelotti scoring the first of the Rossoneri’s five goals. This Milan side was perhaps the best the club game has ever seen; Until, many would argue, Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona.
The Real side of the late 1980s, however, excelled less than the class of 2023, which lost 4-0 to Guardiola’s Manchester City.
But in the period between Guardiola’s Barcelona triumph in 2011 and perhaps the Catalan’s third triumph next month in Istanbul, Real have been kings of Europe five times. The club with the indelible bond of winning left the stylistic awards to others. You simply won.
Her greatness was proven in the trophy cabinet. They played by their own rules. Such is the unique momentum at the Bernabeu that ending a season without La Liga or Champions League somehow forces them to sack the manager, regardless of whether that is actually the right decision or whether the replacement is an upgrade.
Until now? Ancelotti insisted. “Next season I will be here to fight to win another Champions League,” he said. “No one doubts me. The President said very clearly two weeks ago: There is no doubt about my whereabouts.”
The amiable realist and most decorated manager in European Cup history can often benefit from insider knowledge. But for once he sounded like a man in denial. “I don’t think we need to make a drama out of this,” Ancelotti added. “These things happen in football. You were better than us today. It’s been a good season; To reach the semi-finals of the Champions League is a success.” All of this would have made perfect sense if the manager of another club had said it.
But this is real. It’s a club where every Champions League elimination is drama, where the manager is the prime target for a token sacrifice and where a major setback calls for a change.
When they last lost 4-0 to Liverpool in England in 2009, they responded with record-breaking spending sprees on Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaka, Xabi Alonso and Karim Benzema. Fourteen years, 645 games and 352 goals later, Benzema is still around. Real turned experience into an advantage; Sometimes it seemed to be her trump card. They could outmaneuver opponents; until City suddenly made Real look old by running away from them.
Perhaps it was summed up by the fact that Luka Modric was replaced by a defender named Antonio Rudiger with half an hour remaining to allow Eduardo Camavinga’s younger legs to be used in midfield. His longtime friend followed seven minutes later, Toni Kroos was also substituted; He’d hit the bar and even with a eminent defeat, Real might wonder what could have been, but those are emotions they’ve evoked in others over the years.
Jude Bellingham may have been Real’s top signing this summer anyway, but if it felt like part of planning for the future, one was tempted to wonder if the future was coming as a 37-year-old and a 33-year-old finally showing his age .
The end of an era or a lonely bad evening against what is probably the best team in Europe at the moment? “I don’t think it’s the end of a chapter at Madrid,” said Guardiola. Real have a two-generation team; With Camavinga, Rodrygo and Vinicius Junior they have champions born in the 21st century. You have evolved. They’ve lost to City before and reacted: after being eliminated by Guardiola’s side in 2020, they won the competition again in 2022. Before the game, Ancelotti argued that the Champions League was her “particular strength”; until it failed them amid a 90-minute display of City’s running prowess.
When it comes to the greater physicality and intensity of the Premier League, it feels like Real have been defending mainland Europe against English invasion for the past few years.
They’ve capitalized on their history, their pedigree, their ability to lag behind in games and win crucial moments, the seeming timelessness of Modric and Benzema and the explosiveness of Vinicius. They beat Chelsea, City and Liverpool last season, repeating the feat of knocking out Liverpool and Chelsea. And then they were so overwhelmed at the Etihad that it wasn’t just the result that brought back memories of Anfield in 2009.
“They are an exceptional team,” said Guardiola. “It doesn’t mean they’re a bad team or that Carlo is a bad manager.”
If that’s obviously true, Ancelotti comes across as inimitable, and his Zen calm makes him well suited to the rhythms of this competition. But it’s always the case that he seems effortlessly in control when his teams are winning and passive and powerless when they’re losing. When Bernardo Silva scored his second goal in the first half, he helplessly drummed his fingers on his upper lip. He was able to knock out Modric and Kroos but Real, last season’s comeback kings, conceded two more goals instead.
He has four games left but it felt like the final at what may be the only club to sack a four-time Champions League winner.