It’s difficult to even fathom that Europe’s most successful club, nine time European Cup winners Real Madrid, have not taken part in a final since 2002. Back then it was Real's current assistant coach, Zinedine Zidane, who hit a miraculous volley to secure the trophy against Bayer Leverkusen.
But that’s history now after Los Blancos decimated Pep Guardiola’s inherited treble-winning Bayern side 5-0 on aggregate score on Tuesday.
Despite over a decade with rosters graced by such names as Raul, Beckham, Figo, Roberto Carlos, Casillas, van Nistelrooy and Ronaldo (both of them), no manager could get the club over the final hurdle. Not Queiroz. not Luxemburgo. not Capello. not Pellegrini... and not even the Special One.
The man who is making the Decima dream possible is Carlo Ancelotti.
It’s easy to forget the robust Italian prankster was a force to be reckoned with during his playing days with Roma and one of the best teams in history – the late 80s Milan side that won back-to-back European Cups in 1989 and 1990. Under the skillful guidance of legendary boss Arrigo Sacchi, Ancelotti learned the value of a team game trumping individual brilliance. Of course when you’re charged with managing one Cristiano Ronaldo, a little of that individual brilliance goes a long way.
As a manager, Ancelotti has found success wherever he has gone. In Italy he had the magic touch with the Rossoneri again, twice leading the club to Champions League victories in 2003 and 2007, and were it not for a miraculous three-goal Liverpool comeback in 2005, he would have claimed it three times. He conquered English football in 2010 with Chelsea, proudly claiming a double before being unceremoniously and disgracefully dumped by Roman Abramovich in the tunnels of Goodison Park on the last day of the 2011 season.
Next up was the nouveau riche project at the Parc des Princes in Paris. Ancelotti wasted little time in delivering PSG its first Ligue 1 title since 1994, completing the task in his first full season. And while the prospect of building the French side into European contenders was tempting, the offer to succeed Jose Mourinho at the Bernabeu was simply too irresistible for the Reggiolo man.
Like many successful managers, the majority of his players love working with him. He brings a fierce determination to the pitch at game time, but loosens up his players with jokes ahead of matches. He’s equally endearing with the press – but make no mistake – he means business.
His business is winning, and part of that formula has been his ability to adapt to his personnel and not be married to one system. At Milan he employed the Christmas Tree formation with powerful effect – a midfield anchored by the pitbull Gattuso, the artistry of Andrea Pirlo, channel runners and goal scorers Kaka and Seedorf, and the quality finishing of either Shevchenko or poacher-extraordinaire Pippo Inzaghi.
Not trying to fit a square peg into a round hole, at Stamford Bridge he recognized the strength of his midfield with players such as Ballack, Essien, Lampard and Malouda, and gave them the freedom to express – and restrain - themselves according to the opponent. Ancelotti put his faith in Didier Drogba’s hold-up play to provide the pivot for the aforementioned midfield stars to shine.
In Paris, already with an embarrassment of riches compared to the rest of Ligue 1, Ancelotti raised the bar by bringing Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva over from Milan, while also securing top young talents like Lucas Moura and Marco Verratti. In the City of Lights he predominantly took advantage of his outstanding wing play with a 4-4-1-1 formation to get the most out of Ibrahimovic and former Napoli star Ezequiel Lavezzi. Domestically at least, it worked a charm, winning the league by a comfortable 12 points ahead of runners-up Marseille.
It’s easy to imagine then, after compiling the accolades and silverware in Italy, England and France, that Ancelotti’s ego would precipitate a major departure from the ousted Mourinho philosophy when he arrived in Madrid. It certainly would have been justified, but Ancelotti understood that Real were not far off from greatness. Instead of throwing away what Mourinho had built, Ancelotti embraced it – he even went so far as to continue the much-maligned goalkeeper rotation that had caused his Portuguese predecessor so many problems with the Spanish press.
In sticking with the now hugely popular 4-2-3-1 at the Bernabeu, Ancelotti is getting the most out of Ronaldo, Bale and Di Maria on the flanks, while solidifying the back four with Xabi Alonso and a rotation of central midfielders like Isco, Modric and Illaramendi. He understands that this squad can adapt to any opponent – attack at will versus lesser squads, or counter attack with devastating pace and power against high lines and possession-oriented teams like Barcelona or the recently vanquished Bayern Munich.
The truth though is that the job this season is still unfinished. With the Copa del Rey already in the bag, Ancelotti still has his sights set on the treble, and if it weren’t for the amazing rise of Diego Simeone with Real’s version of the ‘noisy neighbors’ at Atletico, La Liga title could very well have already been sewn up as well. As things stand currently in the Spanish league, it’s going to take a stumble from Atletico to make that possible.
But the Champions League final has been accomplished, and in fine fashion to say the least. Whether that fateful night for Real in Lisbon this May sees Ancelotti’s men take on Chelsea or Atletico Madrid, a major step has been taken towards returning Europe’s premier heavyweight back to the top of the heap.
And it couldn’t have happened to a more likeable and deserving man. While all the headlines and web space are usually dedicated to the likes of Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho, Ancelotti has quietly gone about his business and taken the greatest club in football history back to its lofty heights.
And if he joins the four other managers in history to have won a European Cup with two different teams, his legacy will be forever etched in the hearts of Madridistas who have waited longer than they ever imagined to get back to the summit.
And perhaps even after that, the best is yet to come.