Real Madrid had surrendered a 2 goal advantage at the Anoeta to lose 4-2 against Real Sociadad. If that wasn’t bad enough, in their next test they ended up committing the cardinal sin of surrendering another lead this time at the Santiago Bernabue against bitter city rivals Atletico Madrid. Di Maria had left and to compound the misery of Ancelotti so had his midfield general Xabi Alonso. It was all doom and gloom in the capital of Spain. It was hard to imagine that not long ago this very team had won their 10th European cup and ended the long thirst for their holy grail i.e.: La Decima.
Ancelotti was given new shiny toys in the shape of James and Kroos to fit into the Real Madrid Jigsaw by none other than Florentino Perez. When Perez gives his managers new toys they better be flaunted in front of the world.
To make matters worse the Real Madrid supporters had lost their patience with the team and some of the players, not that they are a very forgiving bunch anyways. The once saint of Spain and Real Madrid, Iker Casillas had now become the sinner who was put between the posts by Ancelotti to the dismay of many. Real had squandered the chance to sign a world-class striker and Ancelotti persisted with Benzema despite his barren scoring run. If Perez was blamed for the exodus of Alonso and Di Maria, Ancelotti felt the full brunt of the anger shown by the sometimes delusional Madrid supporters for the lack of results . Los Blancos obviously had major problems defending corners on the near post, and much of the blame was attributed rather unfairly to Casillas. Ancelotti still defended him when it would have been easier to just leave him out of the starting 11.
In his press conference after the Atletico Madrid defeat, Ancelotti was asked the obvious questions. He raised his considerable eye brows on each one of them and shrugged them off as if he had already seen the future in which he had already addressed each and every problem. He didn’t say a miracle would happen, he promised improvement and he asked for a little bit of time however if anything Real Madrid is the last club on planet earth where the luxury of time can be enjoyed by the man in the hot seat.
Next up was the safe haven of the European Cup for the los Blancos. The European Champions had to face the giant killers Basel in the UEFA Champions League. Ancelotti’s men played fast attacking football putting 5 past the team from Switzerland. The boo boys still sounded aloud. Casillas and Benzema were still targeted, Real still looked shaky on set plays and they still had holes to plug in front of the defense with Alonso gone.
It remained rather unclear what the formations was. Sometimes it looked like a 4-2-4 with James joining in with the front 3. Despite the undoubted skills Kroos possesses he lacked the foresight of Alonso in covering space. The back 4 was being offered little if any protection and the likes of Bale and Cristiano seemed to have lost their zest for tracking back. Ancelotti still at least ideologically persisted with a 4-3-3 with James given a crash course to play as one of the midfield 3. It took the World Cup golden boot winner time but he rather quickly learned that this was neither Porto nor Monaco and the manager he is working under isn’t someone who will allow him to jog through games providing just 1 or 2 special moments. James slowly did become accustomed to that position; putting in the hard yards and running without the ball like a man possessed.
James fitting into the puzzle wasn’t the biggest concern. It still remained who would fill the boots of Xabi Alonso? A player: who could not only spray the ball around but also provide a protective shield for the back four. There was no doubt in the ball playing ability of Toni Kroos, after all he was the pass master for his world champion Germany team during the World Cup but could he adjust in a far more responsible and pragmatic role in front of the back four? That question baffled many but only Ancelotti had the real answer for it. Alonso wasn’t going to be replaced by Kroos alone, Carlo cleverly put more responsibility on Modric to cover the rather gaping hole in front of the back four. Kroos and Modric started dividing responsibility and slowly Real Madrid started to control games. It wasn’t long before a clean sheet arrived against perhaps their toughest away match at the time against Villareal in a 2-0 victory. If the first half was erratic, the second was anything but: Modric and Kroos killed the game off with their uncanny ability of dictating the pace of play.
Cristiano Ronaldo started scoring goals left right and centre breaking all sort of records if he already hadn’t. Benzema was booed yet he had the unwavering faith of Ancelotti, he soon found his goal scoring shoes. Real Madrid decimated all before them. Scoring 5 or more goals in 90 minutes became customary yet doubts surrounded Ancelotti and his team.
The answers however would come sooner rather than later. A week in which they were supposed to face Liverpool at the mythical Anfield and then face their eternal enemies Barcelona would provide the scale of improvement. This was the true test for Ancelotti and his team. Real travelled to Anfield with a touch of arrogance surrounding them however they had never beaten the reds in Europe. The match was over inside 40 minutes, Real netting 3 past Liverpool and the 2nd half was all but a formality. It was more about preserving energy for the clash with Barcelona in the 2nd half.
So it had arrived, one of the most anticipated Clasicos in recent memory. One question still surrounded Ancelotti regarding his captain and under fire keeper Casillas with Navas on his heels. Real Madrid had the best attack in the league however they were coming up against a team yet to concede a goal. All the talk was about how Luis Enrique was returning to the Bernabeue and how he had rectified all the defensive issues Barcelona had under Tata Martino.
Ancelotti opted to start with the most offensive 11 at his disposal starting both Marcelo and Carvajal in full back positions. To the surprise of many Khedira was left out and a midfield trio of Modric, Kroos and Isco were given the task to not only create chances but also provide protection for Ramos and Pepe in the centre of defense. Cristiano Ronaldo, James and Benzema started as the front 3, James more or less put in a shift behind the front men making it a midfield 4. Bale was ruled out due to injury. The start was anything but inspiring for Ancelotti’s men, Neymar scoring for Barcelona inside the first 10 minutes. You could feel the critics jumping up and down writing the headlines of how Ancelotti had not beaten Barcelona in the league of how in the all the big 3 home matches against Atletico and Barca, Ancelotti had failed to even get a point. What followed was a remarkable surge of energy from the Los Blancos despite having a day less to prepare for this match. Real rampaged forward with Marcelo providing width and Kroos and Modric spraying the ball around,Isco directly running at the midfield, James running up and down the field: Real should have equalized earlier than they did. Benzema hit the post twice and looked as lively as he has ever looked. However with every passing minute one wondered how long could they maintain the pace and intensity. It was at this moment that Barcelona started to have more possession and Luis Suarez provided the ball in a gift wrap to Lionel Messi to make it 2-0 however that wasn’t to be. Messi was 6 yards out and you could have put your house on him to score in that situation. Casillas pulled out a reaction save reminding everyone of the old days when he was not only Real Madrid’s undisputed number one but also the best in the world.
Marcelo’s surges down the left hand side were constantly causing trouble for Barcelona, Ancelotti had given his mercurial left back full license to maraud forward not that he needs any encouragement anyways. His ball into the box resulted in a rather bizarre handball from a lackluster Pique. Real were gifted a penalty and Ronaldo being Ronaldo made no mistake putting the first goal of the season past Bravo. At half time it was 1-1, a fairly even match with both managers presumably happy.
In the 2nd half Real Madrid came out all guns blazing. Ironically after all the talk of how poor Los Blancos are at defending corners they took the lead via a bullet Pepe header from a Kroos corner. Real were in the lead and with Barcelona needing to amp it up, Ancelotti’s men had every chance of scoring on the counter. It was another corner that led to Madrid’s 3rd of the game. This time it was a Barcelona corner of which Madrid broke with amazing purpose and speed. Isco chased after Iniesta like a man possessed warranting a mistake, he collected the ball and passed it to Ronaldo who subsequently laid the ball off to James. James neatly slotted the ball to karim benzema who finally got his goal and it was nothing more than what he deserved. Barcelona kept searching for a way back into the match however an inspired Ramos left them clutching at straws. Modric and Kroos were in total control and Real looked threatening every time they launched a counter attack. There were no more boo boys at the Bernabue and Real Madrid calmly played the match out. It was a rather comfortable 3-1 victory. The likes of Benzema, Ramos, Isco, Marcelo, Ronaldo etc took the praise but the real man of the match was Ancelotti.
The Italian has yet again worked his magic. He has admirably worked with some of the most impatient and weird directors in football. Berlusconi was difficult, Abrahmovich was over ambitious to the point of delusional however that wasn’t as hard as it is to work with Florentino Perez. One never knows what is going through his head. Perez can fire you for not looking good enough or for not wearing classy clothes that is just how he is. To Ancelotti’s credit he has managed to mix the most unusual elements provided to him and make them into a very good unique molecule. He is simple, he is honest and above all he is a visionary. If Real Madrid manage to have a great season much of the praise will go to Perez and stars such as Cristiano Ronaldo but the true hero is this saga has to be King Carlo.