Ancelotti might be a Real Madrid legend - but he needs to win the Champions League to keep his job

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Carlo Ancelotti Real Madrid 2022-23
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Los Blancos may have beaten Liverpool handily at Anfield, but that performance was an outlier during what has been a tough 2023 at Santiago Bernabeu

Carlo Ancelotti's recent press conferences have become repetitive. On a weekly basis,the Real Madrid boss is asked about expiring contracts, his refusal to stick to one tactical system, and why Eden Hazard is, once again, injured. He is drilled about why Barcelona are nine points ahead in La Liga. And then, finally, in some form, he is asked about his long-term future at Santiago Bernabeu.

Such questions would be hard to believe for those who watched Madrid thrash Liverpool at Anfield just three weeks ago, but as the Italian coach prepares for the return leg, he does so under increasing pressure.

Los Blancos have fallen behind an inexperienced Barca side in La Liga, and will see their title defence all-but end if they lose to their arch-rivals in Sunday's Clasico.

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Their record against Barca this season doesn't bode well for them, have already lost the Spanish Super Cup final to Xavi's side, while they are 1-0 down after the home leg of their Copa del Rey semi-final.

At this point, then, it is likely to be Champions League or bust for the veteran manager. He simply has to finish the job against Liverpool on Wednesday, and perhaps go on and win a second succesive European Cup; his job could depend on it.

  1. From dominance to defeats

    From dominance to defeats

    Ancelotti has steadily come under pressure as the season has worn on in Madrid.

    This time last year, Los Blancos were pulling away domestically and pulling off miraculous Champions League comebacks. The ex-Chelsea boss was being hailed for his laissez-faire coaching style, with fans and media alike marveling at his side's controlled brilliance.

    Madrid felt like a unique side in modern European football. They barely wavered from their own style, regardless of the match situation. They were battered for long periods, but always stuck in games, showing remarkable self-belief to work themselves out of situations that other teams would have wilted in.

    Now, though, things have changed. Madrid are very beatable. Those displays where opponents got the better of them statistically are turning into actual defeats.

    Ancelotti, meanwhile, has been steadfast in his tactics, even while the 'vibe' that he creates seems to be wearing off.

  2. The loss that changed everything
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    The loss that changed everything

    In fairness, everything seemed to be running pretty smoothly during the first few months of the season. Madrid didn't lose a single domestic game until November. They brushed off Xavi's new-look Barcelona in the first Clasico of the season, and held off Atletico in the Madrid Derby.

    Although there was an occasional European slip up - marked by a frustrating but forgivable 3-2 defeat to a resurgent RB Leipzig - Madrid looked composed as the World Cup break loomed.

    Then Rayo Vallecano happened.

    Madrid were hoping to go top of the table with a win, but instead they let slip a 2-1 lead to lose 3-2 in a game where their hosts deserved to win by a far greater margin.

    After the game, Ancelotti slammed his side. He singled out the performances of Vinicius Junior and Marco Asensio as being below-par, but did concede that his team were tired after a stretch of 11 games in 36 days.

    It was unusual to see a manager as calm as Ancelotti criticise individuals. The Madrid boss had so regularly hailed his players and praised performances that a negative press conference was hard to believe.

  3. Barca hand out a Supercopa embarrassment

    Barca hand out a Supercopa embarrassment

    That showing was forgotten somewhat as Madrid brushed off Cadiz in their last game before the World Cup, but some of the same problems from that Rayo defeat have remained since the break for Qatar 2022.

    Madrid regularly show a lack of bite in front of goal, predictability in attack and errors in progressing the ball out of the back.

    It all came to a head in the Spanish Super Cup final in mid-January as they faced Barcelona. The Blaugrana were hardly flying when they entered the contest, as they had scraped past Atletico Madrid in the league and then needed penalties to beat Real Betis in the semi-final. Robert Lewandowski was serving a lengthy league suspension and Barca were struggling to create chances in his absence.

    But in Riyadh, the Blaugrana battered Real Madrid.

    Xavi introduced a new formation, playing four central midfielders in a modified 4-2-3-1 formation. Ancelotti, meanwhile, stuck with his traditional system, and could only watch on as Barca scored twice in the first half, with a late consolation goal from Karim Benzema doing little to dress up a 3-1 embarrassment.

    More pressing than the result, though, was the performance. Madrid constantly gave the ball away in midfield, and were blown apart in transition by a younger, quicker and more alert Barca side. It was all very out of character for an Ancelotti team.

    Ancelotti inadvertently highlighted the worrying nature of the result after the loss: "Real Madrid usually win finals, and we’ve lost this one," he said following the result.

    The result was a breaking of the usual mould. Madrid, perennial winner and masters of big games, had lost their most significant of the season so far.

  4. Persistent mistakes
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    Persistent mistakes

    A series of faults and failures in the league have followed, although Madrid aren't losing games in spades; they're simply drawing too often. Since the World Cup, they have drawn with Real Betis, Atletico Madrid and Real Sociedad. They have also lost to Villarreal and Mallorca.

    There's a pattern to these performances, too, with Madrid relying too heavily on the brilliant but mercurial Vinicius.

    They run everything through their star winger, who can change a game at any given moment, but that predictability has allowed opposing teams to adapt. The Brazilian is double or triple-teamed every time he touches the ball, and kicked whenever he rounds an opponent.

    Defensive mistakes have followed, with first Ferland Mendy and then Eduardo Camavinga leaving Los Blancos exposed at left-back.

    Ballon d'Or winner Benzema has struggled with injury, while knocks and tired legs in midfield have prevented Ancelotti from fielding a consistent XI in 2023.

    It all amounts to a spluttering squad, one that is steadily being figured out by the teams around it.

    Most managers would change. They would see the faults in their system and experiment. Another coach might realise that teenager Alvaro Rodriguez is a more direct striking option, and employ him as a No.9 instead of the attacking midfielder Rodrygo when Benzema is absent. A different manager could adjudge that defensive-midfielder Camavinga cannot simply be slipped into a left-back spot without cover.

    Ancelotti, though, has stuck to his guns. He probably has every right to. The Italian has won everything in football, and has been notoriously reluctant to fiddle with things. Ancelotti is, for better or worse, set in his ways.

  5. Could Ancelotti really be sacked?
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    Could Ancelotti really be sacked?

    And those ways have still yielded some results. Los Blancos still won the Club World Cup, and their victory at Anfield showed that they are still very much a force on the European stage.

    But rumoured discontent is bubbling behind the scenes. Rodrygo had a public spat with his manager after being substituted in a Copa del Rey contest in January, while Aurelien Tchouameni skipped watching a Madrid game to head to an NBA event in Paris.

    The club's board, meanwhile, refused to give Ancelotti the money to bring in Joao Cancelo on an affordable loan deal during the transfer window. The manager, for his part, has been antsy after negative results, and claimed that club legends Luka Modric and Toni Kroos should prepare for "a moment of transition."

    Club president Florentino Perez is also unhappy, and had a lengthy dressing-room chat with Ancelotti after their dire 0-0 draw with Betis on March 5.

    Where this all ends is difficult to say. Ancelotti's contract runs until 2024, and he appears to have a way out, with the Brazil national team reportedly interested in bringing him in.

    It is the nature of being Real Madrid manager that every result will be scrutinised. Ancelotti has drawn so much out of his side for the last 18 months that any slip in form will be met with raised eyebrows, and not just from the man himself. At the pinnacle football, past successes are quickly forgotten.

    Ancelotti is also not helped by Barcelona's impressive form this season. The Blaugrana have La Liga all-but wrapped up, and are in a good position to knock Madrid out of the Copa del Rey, too.

    Real should really see off Liverpool. Ancelotti's team has a three-goal aggregate lead, and the Reds aren't in any sort of form that would suggest they could conjure another European comeback.

    But Ancelotti truly needs this one. European success, so often expected, has become essential. It could be the only thing to keep him in a job.