Are Real Madrid ready to record their greatest ever season?


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Manchester United can covet Carlo Ancelotti all they like to be their next manager, but Real Madrid are unlikely to make the same mistake twice.

In 2003, a season after he'd just led his team to a ninth European Cup and a week after winning another league title, Madrid bizarrely dismissed popular coach and former player Vicente del Bosque, the man who'd won two European Cups at the Bernabeu.

The patient and studious Del Bosque wasn't dynamic enough, apparently, and the news was broken to him in a TV studio as he was about to go on air for an interview, a dirty way to end a 35-year association with the club he'd served so well as a player and then manager.

Despite a 10th Champions League (la decima) being the club's obsession ever since, Madrid haven't won club football's greatest trophy since Zinedine Zidane's epic strike won the game against Bayer Leverkusen at Hampden Park 12 years ago.

Madrid didn't even get beyond the quarter-finals for six years until Jose Mourinho took charge in 2010. He reached the semi-finals three years in succession, but last night Carlo Ancelotti took Madrid to their first final since that night in Glasgow.

Manchester United understand that the Italian isn't as happy as he may seem at the Bernabeu and that's why he's top of a shortlist to be their boss with current Holland boss Louis van Gaal. Madrid have changed their manager 25 times in the last 25 years and United have changed theirs twice. That longevity - or the perception of longevity - is attractive to any coach in a fickle profession.

Madrid is a wonderful club and would be more attractive to most coaches than United if it wasn't for two things: a short life-expectancy and interference in team selection from above. However subtle it may be, it has existed for every Madrid coach.

Coaches can't be blamed for giving the job a crack. As Carlos Queiroz said when I spoke to him about Madrid recently: "What would you do when Real Madrid offer you the job? First you decide (to take the job) with your heart, then you think with your head later." He replaced Del Bosque and lasted a season.

Some of football's greatest bosses have tried and Ancelotti is no different. He's largely happy in Spain, working with some of the best players in the world and living in a great capital city. His stock is high and the 75,000 who almost fill the Bernabeu most weeks respect him, but he's only a couple of results away from dismissal.

There's no way that Madrid's president, who needs to remain popular with fickle fans, would have stomached the type of poor form associated with United on a consistent basis this season. David Moyes would have been gone by October had he replicated his United results at the Bernabeu.

Despite the current high, there have been several occasions this season when the Madrid media have been savagely critical of their side and Ancelotti, yet as we move into May Madrid are in with a chance of winning the treble.

They're in the Lisbon final of the competition which means most to them and they've done it the difficult way, first in a tough group with Juventus, Galatasaray and Copenhagen, then by knocking out three Bundesliga teams in the knock-out stages - and doing so in style. They hammered Schalke 9-2 on aggregate, then gained revenge for last season's elimination to Dortmund by knocking them out in the quarter-finals.

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Last night's demolition of Bayern Munich in Bavaria was the most impressive performance in football this season. It also brought to an end Bayern's cycle of dominance. The Champions League final on May 24th will be the first one that neither Bayern nor Manchester United have appeared in since 2007.

That Madrid's victory came against a team managed by despised Catalan Pep Guardiola made it even sweeter for Madrid and their 4,000 travelling fans. Most arrived back at Barajas airport around 4am, the same time as the team. Fans clutched inflatable fire extinguishers - they'd put out the Bayern's fire.

Thanks to a Gareth Bale wonder goal, Madrid have already beaten Barcelona in the final of the Copa del Rey, and they could win La Liga, though it looks unlikely. Madrid are third, six points behind leaders and neighbours Atletico who have three games to play, though Madrid do have a game in hand.

They also know that second-placed Barcelona and Atletico meet on the final day of the season, while they have to play Valencia at home on Sunday, Valladolid away on Wednesday, Celta Vigo away and Espanyol at home. Madrid's home defeat to Barcelona knocked their title charge which had seen them go 18 league matches unbeaten, since, er, their previous game against Barcelona in October.

Madrid lost at Sevilla three days after March's clasico defeat and that was seen to be the end of their title hopes, but they've won their four league games since, scoring 17 without reply. This could yet be Madrid's greatest ever season.

A European Cup would more than suffice and Ancelotti would be lauded and retained. United can forget ideas of enticing him away right then. Had Bayern eliminated Madrid and the Spaniards finished the season with only a domestic cup for their efforts, then Ancelotti could have been dismissed, but goals and victories matter more than pointless statistics about possession. And Madrid are scoring plenty of goals, usually thanks to their BBC strike force of Bale, Benzema and Ronaldo.

Ronaldo got two against Bayern, Sergio Ramos another brace in their best result for a generation - since that night in Hampden. They'll want to better it in Lisbon against Atletico or Chelsea.

Andy Mitten - @AndyMitten

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