Celtic v Real Madrid: Can hosts frustrate Carlo Ancelotti again in Champions League?

Celtic Park is the first stop in Real Madrid's Champions League defence after their final win over Liverpool last season
Celtic Park is the first stop in Real Madrid’s Champions League defence after their final win over Liverpool last season
Venue: Celtic Park, Glasgow Date: Tuesday, 6 September Time: 20:00 BST
Coverage: Listen to live Sportsound or BBC Radio 5 live commentary and follow text updates on the BBC Sport website & app

The caption was concise: ‘The boss.’ Puffing on a cigar and wearing shades, Carlo Ancelotti exuded effortless cool in a photo that went viral of the Real Madrid manager celebrating La Liga title success with a quartet of players in May.

The latest trophy in his collection burnished an already glittering CV. In his first year back in Madrid, Ancelotti had become the only coach to have won the title in each of Europe’s ‘big five’ leagues.

For good measure he added the Champions League a few weeks later, a record-extending 14th crown for Real and an unprecedented fourth for the 63-year-old, with two apiece at the Spanish giants and AC Milan. And that’s without even mentioning the two he won as a Milan player.

Yet amid the glut of honours and personal accolades in a storied career, a curious anomaly remains. Ancelotti has never won at Celtic Park, having tried and failed on three occasions with Milan.

It’s an itch he gets the opportunity to scratch on Tuesday when he brings all-conquering Real to Glasgow for a Champions League group opener that has the city – well, half of it at least – abuzz with excitement.

‘He gives players responsibility’

Ancelotti explained the cigar-toting picture, posted on Twitter by forward Vinicius Junior, thus: “No, I don’t smoke cigars. It was only a photo with my friends. Yes, these players are my friends.”

And therein lies one of the tenets of the Italian’s philosophy that has given him longevity at the very peak of the game. Players genuinely like him, as a person not just a manager. They want to play for him.

Ancelotti eschews a dictatorial approach – one artfully arched eyebrow can speak a thousand words – and encourages collective responsibility.

Englishman Paul Clement knows the Italian’s methods in intricate detail, having served as his assistant at Chelsea, Paris St-Germain, Real Madrid first time round (2013-15) and Bayern Munich.

Clement praises Ancelotti as “by far the greatest influence on my career” and provided insight into his man-management to Coaches’ Voiceexternal-link in 2019.

The scene was the night before the 2010 FA Cup final as Chelsea, having sealed the title with an 8-0 thrashing of Wigan and eyeing a first-ever FA Cup and league double, prepared to face Portsmouth.

“The room fell silent,” said Clement. “Every player was suddenly rendered mute by a question they’d never had to answer before.

“‘This is the last game of the season [Ancelotti said]. We know what we’re able to do and we know the opposition. What do you think the tactics should be?’

“Carlo’s question silenced a group of players not renowned for being shy. They weren’t used to being asked for their thoughts; their ideas. But, gradually, baffled expressions turned into ones of contemplation, and then the hands went up.

“Before you knew it, we had a list of defending points and a list of attacking ones. That was it. The tactics were decided; the team talk was done and the next day the players delivered. A 1-0 victory; a historic double; a player-led approach.

“Sometimes coaches are scared to give that responsibility to the players. But ultimately that’s what it’s all about.”

That ethos was also evident in Real’s semi-final against Manchester City last season, with midfielder Toni Kroos revealing he helped advise Ancelotti who to bring off the bench to spark their incredible comeback.

Yet Kroos bristles at suggestions Ancelotti’s laissez-faire outlook is not complemented by a sharp tactical mind.

“I saw the same with [Jupp] Heynckes,” Kroos said on the eve of last season’s final. “It’s a shame Heynckes and Ancelotti are reduced to being ‘wardrobe managers’. I don’t think that does them justice. It sounds like they don’t know about tactics.

“They are very clear about how they want their teams to play, in both defence and attack. That’s often left out when people talk about them.”

Clement added: “As a coach, Carlo taught me an incredible amount. But equally important is what I learned from him as a person. I watched how he dealt with people and relationships. He made players feel comfortable. He got the best out of them.”

‘Complicated environment’ – Ancelotti’s three fruitless Celtic Park visits

Thirty years on from his first coaching role as Italy assistant, Ancelotti’s approach continues to reap rewards.

Having begun the season by winning the European Super Cup and opening La Liga with four straight victories, Real’s band of superstars descend on Glasgow for the start of their Champions League defence.

They have been pre-warned. Ancelotti has spoken of being “careful” in the “complicated environment” of Celtic Park, where he has been burned before.

In 2004, Martin O’Neill’s hosts faced Ancelotti’s Milan in the Champions League group and battled to a goalless draw that couldn’t prevent Celtic dropping out of Europe.

In March 2007, it was Gordon Strachan at the Celtic helm in the rarefied realm of the last 16 and another stalemate. The only goal of the tie came in extra-time at San Siro – a peach of a solo effort from Kaka – as the Rossoneri scraped through. It proved to be their biggest scare on the way to lifting the trophy.

The triptych was completed six months later as Celtic exacted revenge and propelled themselves towards the last 16 by defeating Ancelotti’s European champions 2-1. You remember that game, right? A Celtic fan running on to the pitch and giving Dida a light tap, with the goalkeeper going down theatrically.

Gordon Strachan's Celtic defeat Carlo Ancelotti's AC Milan 2-1 on a raucous night in Glasgow 15 years ago
Gordon Strachan’s Celtic defeated Carlo Ancelotti’s AC Milan 2-1 on a raucous night in Glasgow 15 years ago

Those were heady days for Celtic in Europe. And while the atmosphere on European nights – lauded from everyone to Lionel Messi and Xavi to Paolo Maldini, Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney – remains goosebump-inducing, Parkhead is no longer the fortress it was.

Since the famous win over Barcelona in 2012, Celtic have played nine Champions League group-stage home games and won just one, losing seven. Among them was a 3-0 defeat to Milan and a 5-0 shellacking by PSG.

In Celtic’s five-year absence from the Champions League groups, AEK Athens, Cluj, Ferencvaros and Midtjylland all took at least a draw from Parkhead in qualifiers.

In the same period, 12 group-stage home matches in the secondary competition, the Europa League, yielded eight Celtic victories and four defeats.

Last season, Ange Postecolgou’s first in charge, Celtic were thumped 4-0 at home by Bayer Leverkusen before wins over Real Betis and Ferencvaros. Bodo/Glimt then triumphed 3-1 in Glasgow in the Europa Conference knockout rounds.

Still, Celtic have come a long way in short time under Postecoglou, who is targeting European improvement with a fortified squad boasting strength in depth.

The Australian has vowed not to waver from his attacking philosophy on the Champions League stage. Don’t expect a 0-0 this time when Ancelotti comes to town.

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