With the season just two matches short of the halfway point, Real Madrid manager Carlo Ancelotti can enjoy a relaxing Christmas break with his family, fairly content with how things are progressing.
Following the turbulent Jose Mourinho years, Ancelotti walked in to the Bernabeu to find a squad lacking in concentration and commitment; a side in a state of total relaxation, following the traumas and stresses endured under the rule of the "Special One".
Steadying the ship required diplomacy, tactical nous and something the previous incumbent was never prepared to offer—compromise.
Ancelotti set about trying to shore up the defence, while at the same time attempting to please his president, Florentino Perez, with quality passing and killer counters—the perfect team in fact.
The president wanted to see Gareth Bale in the side as well as Isco and, in the absence of Xabi Alonso, Asier Illaremendi. This, unfortunately, left him with a dilemma and an embarrassment of riches that would have most of the rest of the La Liga sides salivating.
Something had to give. Either Mesut Ozil or Angel di Maria would have to go, and in the end it was Ozil who was deemed surplus to requirements and sold to Arsenal. Ancelotti probably plumped for the German because he suspected he would be less willing to warm the subs bench, opting instead for di Maria, who perhaps showed him more intensity, consistency and another gear.
Only in the last couple of months has his decision been partly vindicated and, despite offers from a number of clubs, most specifically Monaco, Real have no intention of selling him.
The player is desperate to play in the World Cup and his body language suggests that he is unhappy at not being picked all the time. Unfortunately, he’s just going to have to adapt and fight for his place, because he will almost certainly play a part in the major games.
Ancelotti’s decision over who would be his goalkeeper was largely a footballing decision, although, as always at Madrid, partly political. When the Italian came to the club, Diego Lopez had done nothing (nor has he since) to suggest that he should not continue as the club’s number one—where he had performed with distinction since arriving from Sevilla.
Meanwhile the manager can keep Iker Casillas in the frame by playing him in the Champions League and Copa del Rey, while still demonstrating to the world that he’s in charge.
Unfortunately the tactic makes what once seemed impossible become, day by day, more probable, and my sources are telling me that Casillas is now seriously looking for a new challenge away from Madrid.
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Bale, after a tortuously drawn-out transfer, has adapted well, although, predominantly because of a lack of pre-season, we probably won’t see the best of him this season. He has only played around 53 percent of minutes since his arrival.
What is most encouraging, perhaps, is the understanding that Ronaldo seems to have established with the Welshman, and there seems to be a genuine chemistry between the two players that can only bode well for the club long term.
But the real key to the improvement and resurrection of Real Madrid is the return of Xabi Alonso. His comeback from injury has brought a much-needed balance to the side and changed it to one that will challenge for everything this year and quite possibly end the season top of the La Liga pile.
The club thinks that he is unlikely to renew his contract and he’s thinking of a new challenge, although he still hasn’t decided who that club will be. Unfortunately it will not be Liverpool. At Anfield he would be fighting against his own legend.