|Champions League quarter-final: Chelsea v Real Madrid|
|Venue: Stamford Bridge Date: Wednesday, 6 April. Kick-off: 20:00 BST|
|Coverage: Live commentary on BBC Radio 5 Live, BBC Sport website & app, plus live text commentary online.|
His team are 12 points clear at the top of La Liga and preparing for a Champions League quarter-final with Chelsea, so why is Real Madrid boss Carlo Ancelotti apparently still in serious danger of being fired?
To understand the Italian’s precarious position, it’s necessary to consider the context of his arrival at the club last summer.
Real were in a fair amount of turmoil, with a trophy-less season followed by the departure of iconic boss Zinedine Zidane along with captain Sergio Ramos and his central defensive partner Raphael Varane.
At such a precarious time in terms of morale, club president Florentino Perez needed a safe pair of hands, someone to lead the short-term task of calmly guiding the team out of choppy waters.
A sense of stability and continuity was required and nobody fitted the bill better than Ancelotti, whose experience and easy-going manner made him the perfect candidate to restore order.
He has unquestionably achieved that aim. Real have taken advantage of an inconsistent season from reigning champions Atletico Madrid, a dreadful start from Barcelona and a lack of firepower at Sevilla to establish a surely impregnable position at the top of La Liga – meaning that Ancelotti is poised to become the first manager in history to win the title in each of Europe’s big five leagues.
Whether Ancelotti – who may be forced to follow the action from Stamford Bridge at home after contracting Covid last week – will be given the opportunity to defend the crown next season, however, is a different matter.
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Is history about to repeat itself?
Real’s results over the course of the campaign have largely been better than their performances, with the team often over-reliant on Karim Benzema for attacking inspiration and Thibaut Courtois for goalkeeping heroics.
The absence of the former was particularly notable a couple of weeks ago when Real suffered a humiliating 4-0 home thrashing at the hands of a rejuvenated Barcelona, who are already looking capable of making a serious push for all silverware next season.
A major criticism of Ancelotti throughout the season is that he has shown a very limited ability to rotate his squad, repeatedly lining up with pretty much the same starting XI irrespective of how well they are playing.
With Benzema unavailable for last month’s Clasico, Real’s lack of strategic variety was exposed to an alarming degree as Barca cantered to an unimaginably easy victory – and Ancelotti only weakened his position by a disastrous half-time tactical change which had to be abandoned when the visitors scored two minutes after the restart.
For Perez, embarrassing performances of that nature are generally a signal to change the coach: Rafael Benitez was fired shortly after a 4-0 home defeat by Barca in 2015; Julen Lopetegui went immediately after a 5-1 loss at the Nou Camp in 2018, and Santi Solari was dismissed following a 4-1 Champions League home defeat by Ajax a few months later.
The suspicion that Perez doesn’t entirely trust Ancelotti is strengthened by a simple fact: he has already fired the Italian once, in 2015, when Ancelotti was sacked a year after landing the club’s 10th European title.
Back then, a humbling 4-0 mid-season loss against Atletico played a major part in turning Perez against the coach.
It looks increasingly likely history will be repeated in the coming weeks, with only another Champions League triumph or a perfect finale to the league campaign expected to be enough to persuade Perez against firing Ancelotti.
Who could replace Ancelotti?
So if the Italian goes (again), who replaces him this time?
As with Manchester United, Mauricio Pochettino has long been linked with a move to the Bernabeu, while Julian Nagelsmann of Bayern Munich is admired by Perez and Real legend Raul is coming increasingly into the picture after an impressive spell in charge of the club’s B team.
Whoever is at the helm, they will have to oversee a period of transition. Long-standing stalwarts Benzema, Luka Modric, Toni Kroos and Dani Carvajal must be gradually replaced, while unwanted veterans Gareth Bale, Isco and Marcelo will leave at the end of the season when their contracts expire.
The midfield can be rejuvenated by more prominent roles for Fede Valverde and Eduardo Camavinga, who have been largely sidelined by Ancelotti’s ongoing insistence on starting with Modric, Kroos and Casemiro whenever possible.
Looming largest in the background, however, is Kylian Mbappe.
‘Real could look very different next season’
Real have done everything possible over the past few years to lure French superstar Mbappe away from Paris St-Germain, and it appears inevitable that the long-standing quest to bring him to the Bernabeu will finally bear fruit this summer.
His coaching preferences are bound to be taken into consideration before his eventual arrival.
With Borussia Dortmund’s Erling Braut Haaland also targeted by Perez, who is desperate to retain his club’s place among Europe’s elite despite the financial advantages of clubs such as PSG and Manchester City, the starting XI for Real Madrid next season could look very different to the batch of players routinely selected by Ancelotti.
And so could the figure in the dugout.