‘It’s the start of a new era’: Ancelotti plots bright future for Real Madrid

<span>Photograph: Giuseppe Cacace/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Giuseppe Cacace/AFP/Getty Images

Carlo Ancelotti knew but then so did everyone else. A Sunday night in Saudi Arabia, 6,600km from home and Real Madrid had just been beaten in the final of the Spanish Super Cup. Not just beaten, broken – and by Barcelona. It had finished 3-1 and the one flattered them. “We’re hurt,” the Madrid coach insisted, “but Madrid will come back.”

They always do: the question was how. Second in La Liga, Madrid’s players had returned from the World Cup and, repeatedly rescued by Thibaut Courtois, needed two goals in the last seven minutes to defeat struggling Valladolid. They then began 2023 with by scraping past fourth-tier Cacereño, 1-0 in the Copa del Rey, before losing 2-1 at Villarreal in the league. They had only reached the Super Cup final on penalties against Valencia, Courtois saving them. And now this, taken apart: Barcelona-Madrid was, one headline had it, a Ferrari against a Twingo.

Now this. Back to Villarreal in the cup, up to San Mamés in the league, and then, as it turned out, Atlético Madrid in the cup, followed by Real Sociedad and Valencia again, on edge every three days.

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On the eve of the Villarreal game, Ancelotti said that everyone had given Madrid up for dead. But Ancelotti has experienced comebacks: he was the coach who won their 10th European Cup, dragged out of the abyss by Sergio Ramos in 2014, and their 14th, an act of faith in 2022. But dead? Real Madrid never die, last spring’s European run so absurd as to be simultaneously unbelievable and somehow inevitable.

This is just what they do. Last season, Real started January with defeat at Getafe and cup elimination at tiny Alcoyano but followed that by beating Valencia, Barcelona and Athletic in eight days. They lost to PSG, Chelsea and Manchester City but survived them all. Now Villarreal demolished them, 2-0 up at half time, but they won 3-2.

Then came the turn of their ultimate victims Atlético;: defeated in Champions League finals in 2014 and 2016. On Thursday, Diego Simeone’s side led 1-0, but another comeback came. A moment’s genius from Rodrygo took it to extra time, where the city rivals have headed in each of the last six single-tie encounters and where Madrid won 3-1. There is something eternal, immutable about it, and yet for all that, there is a shift – for both clubs.

Afterwards, Simeone dropped the heaviest hint yet that this, his 12th season, could be his last. Out of Europe, 10 points off Real and 13 behind Barcelona in La Liga. The cup was the last thing Atlético had been able to cling to. Now they have six months to hold on to the underwhelming objective of securing fourth place. “And then we will calmly look at what suits us all,” Simeone said. “I will give 1,000% until the last day I am here.”

Perhaps Simeone has become a victim of his success and the expectations that has brought, although one thing he could not entirely change was his neighbours. Yes, there have been two extraordinary league titles and big derby victories, but it is now just one victory in 11 derbies. The last time he had suggested he might walk away, a broken man, was after the Champions League final in Milan.

Rodrygo of Real Madrid.
Rodrygo is playing an increasingly influential role for Real Madrid. Photograph: Oscar J Barroso/Shutterstock

For Ancelotti, who had defeated Simeone in Lisbon two years earlier, been away and come back, it must have felt like it always did. But asked on Thursday night if that gave him comfort, he replied that what he wanted was for his team to play better football. He couldn’t understand how his his team could play so badly, For all the mystique and miracle, you can’t always come back.

The introductions of Marco Asensio and Rodrygo have often been decisive but behind them in midfield something is happening too. At Villarreal, the substitute Dani Ceballos changed everything. In Bilbao, Eduardo Camavinga stood out on a night when neither Toni Kroos nor Luka Modric started. On Thursday, they both did but Kroos was withdrawn on 74 minutes with Madrid trailing.

Kroos is 33, Modric 37 while Casemiro is gone, to be replaced this summer by Aurélien Tchouaméni, who is 23. Something deeper is happening, a shift that was vital in clinching the Champions League last year.

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Against PSG at the Bernabéu, the 20-year-old Camavinga replaced Kroos on 57 minutes. Against Chelsea, Camavinga replaced Kroos home and away, central to the comeback again. In Manchester, he and Ceballos (26) were introduced. By the 75th minute against City at the Bernabéu, Kroos, Modric and Casemiro were all on the bench. Fede Valverde, 24, became irreplaceable, albeit with the classic three rather than in place of them.

The difference now is that Ancelotti is publicly talking about the future. It is one that will continue with the attempt to sign Jude Bellingham but it is not an easy one to manage; progress is not linear, transitions do not always happen on time. Players who need continuity can’t always get it, the right moment elusive. Ask Martin Ødegaard. Or Ceballos: he joined Madrid in 2017 and it is only this week, as his contract enters the last six months, that it has looked like he could have a signifiant role to play.

Ancelotti had called Casemiro, Kroos and Modric his Bermuda Triangle, legends he didn’t need to hassle or change: they knew what they were doing. But time moves, even as some things feel timeless. “It’s not easy to leave Kroos and Modric on the bench,” he said this week. “We need understanding from the veterans and patience from the young players. We talked about this before the season: it’s a moment of transition and everyone has to understand it.”

After the Super Cup final, it was put to Ancelotti that perhaps Barcelona were about to start dominating again, but he knows Real Madrid always come back. Asked if this really was the end of an era, the Italian smiled. “It’s the start of one,” he said.