Real Madrid

Ancelotti or Pochettino: Should Real Madrid stick or twist with their manager this summer?

8:00 AM WAT 25/04/2022
Carlo Ancelotti Champions League GFX
Los Blancos are close to sealing the Liga title and are in the Champions League semi-finals, but some remain unconvinced by the veteran Italian coach

When Real Madrid face Manchester City in their Champions League semi-final, it will pit arguably the best coach in the world, Pep Guardiola, against one of the most decorated, in Carlo Ancelotti.

The Italian looks set to become the first to win titles across all of Europe’s 'Big Five' leagues, with Madrid close to sealing their La Liga triumph.

But despite his successes, there are still some reservations over whether he is the right man to lead Los Blancos into their new era.

Not for president Florentino Perez, though. Madrid’s chief is planning to keep Ancelotti at the helm, bolstering his project with the arrival of Paris Saint-Germain striker Kylian Mbappe and hoping that is enough for Madrid to stay ahead of their improving rivals, Barcelona.

There seems to be a willing blindness at Madrid to some big red flags, like the 4-0 Clasico capitulation against the Catalans at Santiago Bernabeu in March, which has since been smoothed over by better results.

“It was a bad night but we recovered quickly, we don’t have to think about defeats too much,” said goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois. “I think with our results and attitude in the games before and after, it’s clear that it was a fluke.”

It is true that the defeat did not have big implications in their bid for La Liga, largely thanks to Madrid’s eternal rivals starting the season so miserably.

However in the Champions League, flaws are usually exposed by the best players and coaches in the world, with Guardiola and City aiming to do just that.

And yet the message from Madrid is positivity, despite flirting with disaster in the previous two rounds.

“No matter how much you've won, if you step on a banana skin or have a bad day at the office, you're in for a barrage of merciless criticism,” wrote Tomas Roncero in AS, in defence of Ancelotti.

One of Ancelotti’s flaws highlighted by his detractors is that he does not rotate his squad enough, relying too heavily on his starting XI with only a couple of other players frequently getting significant minutes.

In 2015, that hurt Madrid as they came up short in the Champions League semi-finals, running on empty against Juventus, and it looked like it would be the case again this season, as PSG overran them in the last 16 and Chelsea almost came from behind to overturn Los Blancos' 3-1 first-leg lead in the quarter-finals.

Madrid’s fighting spirit and self-belief, however, helped them claw through those games against the odds, and since then Ancelotti has turned to his backup players more often.

In the 3-1 win at Osasuna last Wednesday, Ancelotti started without any of his trio of key midfielders in Casemiro, Luka Modric and Toni Kroos, while Vinicius Junior started on the bench.

Within the club, there is no urgency to see the Italian leave, given he has performed better than expected after arriving as president Perez’s fourth-choice option last summer, following a mediocre spell at Everton.

In the international break, Perez came to the Valdebebas training ground for a long meeting with Ancelotti, and the latter left feeling reinforced.

The comeback wins against PSG, Chelsea and most recently, Sevilla, indulge Madrid’s identity - winning, even when it seems impossible.

They were on the verge of elimination by Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea for the second year in a row, but a brilliant, unrepeatable assist by the evergreen Luka Modric forced the game into extra-time.

Against PSG, and in the first leg against Chelsea, goalkeeping errors from Gianluigi Donnarumma and Edouard Mendy helped Madrid, although credit must go to the persistent Karim Benzema, who capitalised on them.

Madrid were, in particular, being crushed by the Parisians, struggling badly in the first leg with Ancelotti strangely using Modric as false nine with Benzema injured, but Donnarumma's mistake turned the momentum in their favour.

Despite these helping hands, Madrid are right to value their capacity for comebacks and elite mentality and self-belief they have which makes it possible.

“We have commitment, personality and courage from the players,” said Ancelotti after they came from 2-0 down to beat Sevilla 3-2 in the game which effectively has clinched their title. “The team is capable of doing special things.

"We did not lose confidence with the 2-0 deficit and that helped us against PSG and Chelsea to believe that we could come back.”

That Ancelotti is a winner who can inspire belief and spirit like this is a plus point in his column, when it comes to Perez considering potential alternatives.

Yet if circumstances change before the end of the season - City inflicting a heavy Champions League beating, for example - then there is one clear candidate to replace him, in PSG coach Mauricio Pochettino.

Perez has liked the Argentine for a long time, while Pochettino has previously stated he would like to coach the club. He is not enjoying himself in Paris, and there looks set to be a mutual parting of ways this summer.

Manchester United were linked with the ex-Tottenham boss, but they have appointed Ajax coach Erik ten Hag, leaving a clear path for Madrid should they wish to look in Pochettino's direction.

Pochettino is a modern manager and likes a possession-based game, which might help Madrid establish more control in matches, something that has been lacking at times.

However, beyond a French Cup and this season’s Ligue 1 title, Pochettino has not proven himself a winner in the same way as Ancelotti. Other names linked include former Madrid players Raul Gonzalez and Xabi Alonso, who are cutting their teeth with Real Madrid Castilla and Real Sociedad B, respectively.

“I think that Carlo is a wise man, he knows how to find and put the pieces together,” said Alonso last week as he discussed his future.

“We’ve spoken about it vaguely, now we’re focused on the objectives because we know they are very important,” he added. “Nothing is advanced yet.”

Should Perez not change coach in the summer and things then fall apart next season, it would likely be Raul stepping in to take control on a short-term basis.

However, at Madrid right now, thoughts of failure or a potential humiliation by City are very much out of mind. Instead, the kings of Europe are dreaming of a record 14th Champions League.

And it would be a record for Ancelotti too, who is currently tied with Zinedine Zidane and Bob Paisley on three triumphs as a coach. A fourth would put him clear and pour scorn on his doubters, despite the evidence they have gathered this season.