Do you think Manchester United’s executive vice-chairman ever really believe it was possible? Did Ed Woodward really imagine that Carlo Ancelotti was in the frame to become manager at Old Trafford? Or was it more like his pursuit of Cesc Fabregas and Gareth Bale last summer, just a question of saying the most illustrious names out loud in the hope that people might believe they would ever come to Manchester?
One thing is for sure: in the unlikely event he ever was thinking of decamping to England, Tuesday night will have finally put the idea out of Ancelotti’s head. It was the ultimate demonstration of what exactly it is he has in his hands at Madrid. And it was the final confirmation that he would be mad even to contemplate leaving this team.
No doubt in his Surrey lair, Jose Mourinho is convinced that Ancelotti is in the final thanks to the team he built at the Bernabeu. And it is true that, give or take one or two stellar additions, the personnel are the ones he bequeathed. But in the way they demolished Bayern on Tuesday, no-one could mistake Ancelotti’s Madrid for a Mourinho team.
They play with a panache, a grace, a sense of devilment that was almost entirely absent during the Portuguese’s tenure. They look like a bunch who have had the handbrake removed.
Ancelotti is a brilliant operator. You have to be even to survive at Madrid, never mind thrive. Back in August, when Bale was paraded to the fans at the Bernabeu after signing from Spurs, the Italian was conspicuous by his absence.
Bale shared a platform with the Madrid president Florentine Perez and his board, a group of men who looked as if they were taking a five-minute break from shooting a mafia movie. Or maybe just a break from shooting a Mafiosi. The message being conveyed was that the manager was an irrelevance. The people who mattered at Madrid were Perez and his heavy jewelled, black-suited, shades-wearing acolytes.
Within a season, Ancelotti has, through a mixture of charm, diplomacy and tact, manoeuvred himself into a position where he is demonstrably the most important person at the club. The man who is within a game of delivering the decima, the tenth European Cup, he is universally revered. Unlike Mourinho, whose prickly fondness for picking fights alienated a huge swathe of the Madrid support, Ancelotti is regarded as having the perfect mix of dignity and style fitting for a club of such standing.
Plus, he has turned the group Mourinho left him into the most exciting Madrid team in a generation. Quick, incisive, ruthless, they have everything required of a great side: a good goalkeeper, a fine, characterful back four, an immense midfield and the most thrilling forward line in the world.
And what the Madrid faithful love most of all is that under Ancelotti, they have found a way to unpick tiki-taka. It was the thing that drove Mourinho to distraction. He tried every trick he could think of to better Barca, from parking the bus to acts of personal violence. Ancelotti has done it by the simple expedient of pressing and counter attacking. Easily said. Much harder to execute.
The methodology that beat Barcelona in the Copa del Rey was applied to perfection against Pep Guardiola’s Bayern, another side which likes to have long periods of possession. Hit them quickly, don’t let them build and then give the ball to Ronaldo or Bale. It is simple enough, but when properly applied like it was on Tuesday, it is a joy to watch.
And it can only get better. Breathtaking as he has been at times, Bale is in only his first season. Imagine how good he is going to be in three years' time. Behind him, Madrid are blessed with some of the best young players in the world. Isco, for instance, is a gem, the perfect amalgamation of industry and technique, perspiration and application. Then there is Ronaldo. As Messi sinks into a permanent sulk, Ronaldo has confirmed himself to be the world’s best, just unstoppable.
Why would anyone swap Bale and Ronaldo for Ashley Young and Nani? Given the choice who would opt to work on the training ground with Tom Cleverley rather than Isco? Anyone out there prefer the idea of Phil Jones and Chris Smalling to Pepe and Sergio Ramos?
The only plausible way Ancelotti would be a genuine candidate for the Old Trafford job would have been if he was in danger of being fired, and at Madrid Perez’s finger hovers ever close to the panic button.
After Tuesday night, however, the only danger he faces is being smothered in adoration. In Munich we saw a masterclass of management, a glorious demonstration of the coaching arts. Ancelotti is going nowhere. Right now he has the best job in football.
In which case, in the search for a new boss, Woodward should focus on the likely not the fantasy. What he has to offer candidates is the most significant rebuilding operation in United’s history.
Actually, he doesn’t have to look far. There is a man close to home who would do as good a job as anyone. Admired by the players, loved by the fans; give it to Giggsy.
- Sports & Recreation
- Carlo Ancelotti
- Gareth Bale
- Jose Mourinho
- Old Trafford