I don’t know why everyone is so anxious,” said Carlo Ancelotti. It was the afternoon before Real Madrid’s fourth game of the season and “anxious” was an understatement. It was only 100 days and just seven games since Madrid had won their 10th European Cup. They had waited over a decade for it but it seemed to have been forgotten already. And instead of still enjoying the glory, you could be forgiven for thinking that they were teetering on the edge of a crisis.
True, Madrid had just beaten Basle 5-0, but that did not impress people much. They had lost the Spanish Super Cup to Atletico Madrid and already lost twice in the league, to Atletico Madrid and Real Sociedad. Goalkeeper and captain Iker Casillas had described things as “horrible”, adding: “We can’t go on like this.” Their only victory had been a flat, uninspiring 2-0 win over bottom-of-the-table Cordoba and they trailed Barcelona by six points after just three games. No one had conceded more goals.
“Crisis!” cheered the headline in the Barcelona-based sports daily El Mundo Deportivo. “The worst Madrid,” gloated their Catalan colleagues Sport. Madrid were 13th. Xabi Alonso had gone to Bayern Munich and Angel Di Maria had left for Manchester United. “Suicide” ran one headline. The president, Florentino Perez, was under pressure, with fingers pointing his way. He, meanwhile, blamed others. Up in the boardroom, the whispers went round: Ancelotti, a manager the president had never truly believed in, wasn’t going to make it to Christmas.
But if everyone else was anxious, Ancelotti was not. Or at least he wasn’t showing it. The following night Madrid scored eight against Deportivo La Coruna and three days later they put five past Elche to go with the five against Basle. They had scored 18 goals in a week. And so it began. Over the next six league games Madrid’s goals-for tally read: 2, 5, 5, 3, 4, 5. The winning streak continued, and by the time they travelled to Morocco for the Club World Cup, the run had stretched to a Spanish record of 19 matches.
In that run, they went to Anfield and destroyed Liverpool, then beat Barcelona. If there had been some doubts – of the teams they had beaten in the league until then, only Villarreal were in the top half – they were blown away with victory in the clasico and in Liverpool. So were most of their opponents. Against Barcelona, Madrid did not just take the points, they took the ball too. They had not beaten Barcelona by more than one goal in the league for seven years. And the 3-1 scoreline could have been bigger too.
When Madrid defeated Rayo Vallecano 5-1, it put them on 42 league goals for the season, just 11 weeks in. They’re now on course for 145 league goals. Before the game, Cristiano Ronaldo offered the ESM Golden Shoe to the fans. It is difficult to imagine anyone else winning it next year; he scored again, meaning that he has now scored in every home league game for a year. With 23 goals in 13 league matches he is on course for 66 league goals.
“It’s hard to talk about Ronaldo,” Ancelotti admitted. “I don’t know what to say any more.”
And it is not just Ronaldo. In the build-up to the game there had been doubts over whether Gareth Bale should be included in the team. After all, they had played so well without him. Eight minutes into the game, he scored.
All across the team, Madrid are performing superbly.
Ancelotti had been forced to reshape the team after the departures of Alonso and Di Maria, having already been forced to redesign it last year following Sami Khedira’s injury. But, yet again, he had succeeded. He had the machine running like never before. It helped that the talent at his disposal may never have been matched at club level, but the application still surprised.
Ancelotti insisted he had a “unique group of professionals” but he, too, must take credit. James Rodriguez has adapted to a role in which his responsibility rose. Isco, the artist, sacrifices himself. Luka Modric and Toni Kroos have taken control of the middle of the pitch. Sergio Ramos, Pepe and Raphael Varane are Spain’s best three central defenders. Dani Carvajal will surely be Spain’s regular right-back for years. And even Karim Benzema’s greatest critics have come round. He was named La Liga Player of the Month for October; he had been even better in Europe.
It had been some month. Madrid had scored 13, conceded just 1. The doubts had been forgotten, the departed players too. Or perhaps not: one headline gleefully declared Kroos to be even better than Alonso. The German was not really a deep-lying midfielder but he had made the position his own and the statistics showed it, one sports daily insisted. He’d had more shots, more passes, more assists and more goals than Alonso. Ancelotti called him “el profesor”, the teacher. Marca mocked him up with glasses and a cardigan. “You like my new look?” Kroos asked. “Thanks Mister Ancelotti for the compliment and thanks Marca for the picture.”
A headline summed Madrid up: “Silk.” They controlled games completely and there was a smooth brilliance about them. There is a huge variety to their play now; fast or slow, direct or elaborate, and always effective. They defend well, attack well and play well. It is hard to see a weakness; there’s something ominous about them.
Even off the pitch, it feels as if they are unstoppable. These are days of wine and roses. A deal was announced with the Abu Dhabi-based International Petroleum Investment Company that will help them to develop the Bernabeu and another soon followed with Microsoft.
One La Liga manager blew out his cheeks and rolled his eyes. “Hmm, yeah, that’ll be fun,” he replied when asked about his side’s forthcoming trip to the Bernabeu.
He is not alone. So complete had the victory at Anfield been that Liverpool left the Bernabeu a week later having taken four shots to Madrid’s 27 and yet did so satisfied at a 1-0 defeat that Brendan Rodgers said had given them confidence.
“That’s how good Madrid are; one of the best I have ever seen,” Rodgers claimed. The debate has been served. Could this be the best team they have had?
Results will be the judge of that, of course. No one has retained the Champions League but Madrid may
well be the best equipped to do so.
First, though, there are other targets. Just after the win over Barcelona, Casillas announced the aim was to climb to the top of the table before Christmas and to win the Club World Cup. Madrid will travel to Morocco as favourites. What even Casillas might not have expected was for them to travel there as leaders already. The very next week, Barcelona’s defeat by Celta Vigo put Ancelotti’s team top. It is early still but it is also hard to imagine them relinquishing that position now.
There was bad news, though. During the international break, Modric suffered a thigh injury that means he will miss the Club World Cup and could be out for three months. So important had Modric been, so central to the control the team is exercising, the smooth creativity that has come to characterise them, that not so long ago his absence might have caused huge anxiety. But then anxiety isn’t Ancelotti’s thing.
By Sid Lowe
This article was published in the December 2014 issue of World Soccer