MADRID, Spain, March 8 – Carlo Ancelotti has been around long enough to know that it’s the games that really matter at Real Madrid.
A Champions League Round of 16 draw against Paris Saint-Germain, with all the noise, drama and intrigue, will mean more to Madrid president Florentino Perez than any of their 39 other matches so far this season.
In 2018, Zinedine Zidane launched his entire coaching career by winning titanic battles like these.
It doesn’t matter that Real Madrid finished almost 20 points behind Barcelona in La Liga. Zidane took his side past four European heavyweights in the round of 16 – PSG, Juventus, Bayern Munich and, in the final, Liverpool – and was immediately hailed as a genius.
If success in Europe can excuse a domestic failure at Real Madrid, the reverse is also true.
Winning La Liga this season, however, may not be enough to prevent serious questions being asked about the direction of the club if it is PSG who celebrate at the Santiago Bernabeu.
Ancelotti knows the requirements better than anyone. He experimented with them in 2015, after leading Madrid to the highly anticipated ‘La Decima’ – the club’s 10th Champions League crown – only to be sacked the following season.
“Madrid is not a club to put down roots,” he wrote in his book ‘Quiet Leadership’ in 2017. “You are never just part of the project.”
Even when Real Madrid appointed Ancelotti last summer, it looked more like a marriage of convenience, with Perez finding a trusted guardian to sweeten a transition period following Zidane’s departure and the financial uncertainty caused by the pandemic.
Ancelotti, meanwhile, grabbed an unexpected chance to manage at the top level again.
It worked better than maybe either one imagined. Real Madrid’s 4-1 victory over Real Sociedad on Saturday moved them eight points clear at the top of La Liga, which they will surely earn from here.
An impressive performance certainly suggested they could overturn their 1-0 deficit against PSG.
But as long as Madrid continue to rely on a core of players in their thirties and coaches who manage rather than build, familiar questions remain: how long can this last? And then, what comes next?
Two PSG personalities throw these questions even more to the point.
Kylian Mbappe’s brilliant late first-leg winner in Paris looked both deflated and thrilling for Madrid fans.
Many felt they were getting a close look at a player who will be theirs this summer.
Such is the quality and appeal of Mbappe, his arrival at Real Madrid would grant the club a generational change in one move, a 23-year-old superstar to instantly build a team around.
Mbappe would update his style and restore his status, Real Madrid once again with a team not only to respect, but to fear.
The other relevant figure is PSG manager Mauricio Pochettino, whom Madrid have been eyeing for five years and are strongly considering replacing Zidane in 2018.
“I take it as something positive that Madrid think a lot of me,” Pochettino said the following year.
Pochettino’s time could yet come to Madrid, but he’s also symptomatic of the modern, intense and hands-on kind of manager they’ve eschewed, in favor of more conservative appointments like Zidane, Julen Lopetegui and Ancelotti.
Others were bolder. PSG opted for Pochettino, Bayern Munich for Julian Nagelsmann, Chelsea for Thomas Tuchel and Barcelona for Xavi Hernandez.
Manchester City and Liverpool are always the teams to beat with Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp. Juventus returned to Max Allegri – but not before trying Andre Pirlo.
Ancelotti looked well placed to extend Luka Modric, Karim Benzema, Toni Kroos and Casemiro who have been key to Madrid’s La Liga dominance. Modric and Benzema in particular have been outstanding.
And there’s no doubt that Madrid veterans can find different gear when the Champions League music is playing. Few would be surprised to see them find a way to win on Wednesday.
But these matches also serve as a litmus test. With both Barcelona and Atletico Madrid struggling, these matches are a truer indication of where Madrid are at right now in relation to the top flight.
After beating Liverpool last season, Madrid have been dominated by Chelsea. The year before, they had been convincingly beaten by City.
This is Real Madrid’s challenge this week against PSG; for Ancelotti and his players to prove they are still relevant, not just in Spain but at the highest level, a force for the present rather than relics of the past.