Carlo Ancelotti added yet another achievement to one of the best CVs in football at the weekend when his Real Madrid team, who face Manchester City in the Champions League semi-finals on Wednesday night, won the Spanish title.
It made former Chelsea, Paris Saint-Germain, Bayern Munich and AC Milan coach Ancelotti the only manager ever to become domestic champion in all of European football’s so-called Big Five leagues: England, France, Germany, Italy and Spain.
Yet for all his success, to some extent he remains haunted by one of his darkest hours in the dugout: the 2005 Champions League final, in which his Milan side led 3-0 at half-time but lost on penalties to a Steven Gerrard-inspired Liverpool.
Ancelotti picked at the scar tissue last month when refusing to take a then-impending Spanish league title for granted despite Real Madrid holding a 10-point lead. “I know how you lose a Champions League final when winning 3-0,” he quipped.
The 62-year-old Italian, renowned for his unflappable approach and easy-going charm, put that collapse in Istanbul 17 years ago down to “randomness” and a “crazy six minutes” in his 2016 book Quiet Leadership.
“I cannot say that it was not a massive disappointment to lose the final,” he acknowledged in the same book. Milan’s then-chief executive Adriano Galliani said there was “great sorrow” but put the defeat down to “destiny”.
Ancelotti has been on the right side of some famous comebacks more recently, notably in the knockout rounds of this season’s Champions League, which he is aiming to win for the fourth time in his managerial career.
In the last 16, his Real Madrid team lost the first leg at Paris Saint-Germain and fell further behind in the return game but prevailed thanks to a 17-minute hat-trick from Karim Benzema at the Santiago Bernabeu.
Against Chelsea in the quarter-finals they were 10 minutes from elimination in a topsy-turvy tie before Rodrygo sent it to extra-time and then Benzema, again, completed the comeback and a 5-4 aggregate victory.
If they are to reach the final Real Madrid will have to do it again on Wednesday evening when they face Manchester City in the Spanish capital, having lost last week’s logic-defying encounter at the Etihad Stadium by the odd goal in seven.
Ancelotti has followed his own path to unprecedented success. In his book, he recounts resisting pressure from Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich to be tougher with Blues players. “He was wrong – they are all wrong. I don’t change my character,” he wrote.
He also repeatedly justifies his unfussy approach by drawing comparisons with Vito Corleone’s character in The Godfather. “The film shows that the two most important things are respect and calm authority,” he wrote.
Former colleagues have other insights. John Terry says Ancelotti was fiercely competitive even in training, while his Chelsea assistant Paul Clement detailed how the manager let players design their own tactics for the 2010 FA Cup final.
Another passage of Quiet Leadership holds perhaps more relevant clues as to how Ancelotti might hope to overturn the first-leg advantage held by Pep Guardiola’s City.
“You can’t compete with Guardiola’s teams in terms of possession, but this is not all bad. When you don’t have possession you have fewer problems to solve,” he wrote of planning to face Pep’s Bayern when in his first stint as Real Madrid manager in 2014.
“I convinced my players that our opponents’ possession was actually key to us winning the game.” Ancelotti’s side won 5-0 on aggregate. Outwitting the Spaniard again and pulling off another Champions League comeback would only add to his legend.