As the men in red probed for openings deep in opposition territory, their rivals coiled closer together. And then it came. The flash of white that suddenly sprang forward was roared ever faster downfield. The majority of the 80,000 inside the ground, unusually patient until this moment, had seen this coming.
Their restraint was rewarded with the game’s opening goal. Karim Benzema’s tap-in at the end of a Real Madrid counter-attack must have felt to FC Bayern München coach Josep Guardiola as if somebody had crudely thrust a fist through his carefully placed chess pieces. Along the touchline, Carlo Ancelotti punched the air, for his was the night’s initial tactical triumph on an occasion when ‘Pep’ would suffer his first defeat as a coach in eight visits to this immense venue.
Just over five months earlier, Ancelotti received word from his medical staff of a potentially serious problem developing in Milan. Images of midfielder Sami Khedira grimacing in pain on the San Siro turf during an were about to herald significant changes back in the Spanish capital. With the DFB confirming the grim diagnosis that Khedira had suffered torn right knee ligaments, Ancelotti began to come to terms with the loss of a crucial defensive component of his developing 4-2-3-1 formation. Yet just as it would later in the campaign - particularly against Barcelona in the Copa del Rey final and then Bayern - a key loss in personnel prompted the Italian tactician into a prudent adjustment of plan. His 4-2-3-1 became 4-3-3.
Di Maria stepping up
Once a player on the periphery, Angel Di María cut an unhappy figure and appeared to be on his way out of Real Madrid. Ancelotti acted, coaxing the Argentinian out of his malaise and producing a phenomenal change in attitude that saw the player – nicknamed the noodle on account of his slight frame – emerge as one of the most indefatigable box-to-box players in La Liga.
The 26-year-old’s transformation would be the example Ancelotti expected others to follow: that attacking was an important part of the game, but just as important was that the team defended and pressed with the same intensity. An exhaustive on-field workload would see some left behind. One of European football’s brightest prospects while at Malaga CF, Isco would count among those who initially struggled. The UEFA European Under-21 Championship winner with Spain, who once revelled in a role behind the strikers, was told he would need to drop back while increasing his work-rate significantly.
While Isco got to work on the training pitch, Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo – the famed 'BBC' – led the line for a side that developed into a force on both the domestic and European fronts - going 31 games in all competitions without defeat. Yet while sitting top of the Liga standings and having qualified for a UEFA Champions League quarter-final against Borussia Dortmund, things suddenly started to go wrong for the nine-time European champions.
In an openly contested league game against Barcelona, Madrid lost 4-3. Defeat against a counter-attacking Sevilla side swiftly followed. As always, Ancelotti took the criticism with polite, good humour. But something was clearly not right. Despite brushing past Liga’s lower ranked teams, Madrid had lost twice against Barcelona and had failed to beat rivals Atletico in either of the teams’ two league meetings. Worse was to follow when Ronaldo hobbled out of the Champions League victory at home to Dortmund, the Portuguese attacker falling foul of a knee complaint before later presenting with a hamstring injury that ruled him out of the Copa del Rey showpiece against Barça.
Ancelotti mused. Entering into another ida y vuelta – or end to end game – against the Catalan giants without his team’s most prolific player was a risk the Italian wasn’t willing to take. And so, 4-3-3 became 4-4-2 with Isco having improved sufficiently in his new defensive tasks and showing the increased stamina necessary to be trusted with a start in such an important game.
Barcelona began the encounter by seeking out spaces while their opponents sat deep, containing, waiting to steal possession and then strike. When they did so spectacularly through Di María and then Gareth Bale to win the trophy, Ancelotti knew he had found his tactics for Bayern – a team led by a possession hungry coach who conquered the world with Madrid’s vanquished cup final opponents.
With a first-leg victory secured, Ancelotti is now facing another pivotal moment in his Real Madrid career. “Our objective [in Munich] will be to score, not to defend,” the 54-year-old assured. “If Bale, Benzema and Ronaldo are fully fit, they will all play,” he added. The three have made the trip to Germany. Bale – who was suffering with a virus last week – was rested in the 4-0 win against CA Osasuna at the weekend, a game in which Ronaldo scored two spectacular goals. If all three do play, Bale is expected to drop deeper and show a similar work-rate to that of Isco, who is likely to be benched.
As he peruses his options ahead of his team’s UEFA Champions League semi-final second leg at the Allianz Arena, Ancelotti will be secure in the knowledge that he has never lost against FC Bayern as a coach. When he looks along the touchline on Tuesday night, however, he will no doubt be wary of that figure all too familiar to Real Madrid: a man now hungry for tactical revenge.