After winning the
Champions League three years in a row, Real Madrid have gone three years
without getting close, the task now belonging to Carlo Ancelotti to put the
club back where they believe they belong.
Madrid reached the semi-finals last season but were
resoundingly beaten by Chelsea, whose 3-1 win on aggregate would have been more
emphatic had they not missed a cluster of chances in the second leg.
Before that, Madrid were outclassed by Manchester City and
outplayed by Ajax, a pair of deflating exits in the last 16 serving as a
painful reality check after the giddy years between 2014 and 2018.
Four successes in that half-decade, and three in a row,
established Real Madrid at the pinnacle of Europe, even if Barcelona continued
to reign supreme in Spain.
But an iconic generation grew older and many have now
departed, with Cristiano Ronaldo, Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane – the spine
of the team – all gone. Zinedine Zidane, the coach, left too at the end of last
His replacement, Ancelotti, has a difficult job reclaiming
La Liga from Atletico Madrid, who have themselves retained all of their key
players and been boosted by the return of Antoine Griezmann.
But the task of reclaiming the Champions League appears even
more formidable, when set against the trajectories of English rivals like
Manchester City, Chelsea and Manchester United, and in France, Paris
United, City and Chelsea spent around 400 million euros
($472 million) combined in the summer transfer window as Ronaldo, Varane, Jadon
Sancho, Jack Grealish and Romelu Lukaku bolstered already-glittering squads at
the top of the Premier League.
PSG gladly swept up Ramos and Lionel Messi, La Liga’s two
remaining grandees, to go with Gianluigi Donnarumma, Achraf Hakimi and
Madrid, meanwhile, made a profit of around 20 million euros,
deals for Eduardo Camavinga and David Alaba more than offset by the sales of
Varane and Martin Odegaard.
And while PSG’s determination to keep Kylian Mbappe for at
least the final year of his contract was tested by Florentino Perez, many
suspect Madrid’s president was not too unhappy to wait nine months, when he can
sign the France World Cup winner for free.
Ancelotti’s job now is to manage the year in between, the
season without Mbappe to lead the next era and with the ageing leftovers of the
last one – even if Luka Modric and Karim Benzema might arguably grace all the
starting line-ups of Europe’s elite.
There are talented youngsters too, like Vinicius Junior and
Rodrygo in attack and Miguel Gutierrez at left-back. The 18-year-old Camavinga
showed in his debut on Sunday – when he scored just six minutes after coming on
– he could contribute sooner than many think.
And if Ancelotti can revive the injury-ridden Eden Hazard,
Madrid might have the best new signing of the lot.
Yet the odds are stacked against Ancelotti, as the base of
power – in terms of wealth, talent and tactics – shifts decisively away from
Spain, in the direction of Manchester and Paris.
Ancelotti’s appointment was perhaps even an admission of
that shift: a low-maintenance, popular, potentially short-term coach, capable
of making the most of what he has and trusted not to demand more.
Already, there has been something of a release, with 13
goals scored in Madrid’s first four games bringing a welcome change in tone
following the more conscientious approach under Zidane.
“Football has changed in the last five years: it is
more intense, more aggressive, more organised, even some rules have
changed,” said Ancelotti at his unveiling.
“But the idea is always the same for Real Madrid:
attacking, spectacular football because that is what the history of this club
demands and the fans want.”
But as recent years have shown, winning in La Liga is not
the same as winning in Europe and Inter Milan at the San Siro on Wednesday will
offer Madrid their first test.