SPAIN | Carlo Ancelotti rejoining Real Madrid in June felt like a step backwards, when what the club needed was to evolve.
However, after missing out on Massimiliano Allegri, who elected instead to return to Juventus, Blancos president Florentino Perez offered the role of head coach to Ancelotti, whom he had sacked in 2015 after Barcelona won the treble.
Ancelotti was coming off the back of a disappointing 10th-placed finish in the Premier League with Everton and was himself surprised by the chance to return to the Santiago Bernabeu.
While from the outside, it looked like a misstep, Perez himself believed that he had been hasty in sacking Ancelotti six years ago.
Wanting to make a quick decision, he opted for someone he could trust, and a safe pair of hands.
It may not have been the most exciting appointment but, within a few months, Ancelotti has turned Madrid into the strongest side in Spain and unlocked mercurial starlet Vinicius Junior, another figure whose campaign had begun shrouded in doubt.
— Real Madrid C.F. 🇬🇧🇺🇸 (@realmadriden) December 1, 2021
The Brazilian forward has gone from hit-and-miss comedy to a blockbuster thriller under Ancelotti’s tutelage. Nobody could deny his raw potential, but until this season his inconsistency was a knife in Madrid hearts.
With just three minutes left on the clock in Sunday’s Liga meeting with Sevilla, Vinicius’ drive into the top corner earned Madrid a 2-1 win that leaves them four points clear of city rivals Atletico and Real Sociedad at the top of the table.
It was the Brazilian’s ninth league goal of the season, making him second-top scorer in the division only behind team-mate Karim Benzema and without a single penalty to his name. It also means he has scored more times in 2021-22 than in his previous three Liga campaigns combined.
“Vinicius today showed a quality that I don’t think he’s ever shown before,” said a proud Ancelotti. “It’s another step he takes towards being one of the best in the world.
“The important thing is he focused on being efficient. When the chance comes, you have to take it.”
His sudden improvement is a stinging rebuke to his many detractors, especially those in Barcelona, whom he might have joined in 2018 instead.
The Catalans were interested in the Flamengo prodigy, but his agents, including Frederico Pena, persuaded him his career would be better served with a €45 million (£38m/$51m) move to the Spanish capital instead.
“The opportunity for him to have a quicker impact and break records at Madrid was more real and concrete,” Pena told Cadena SER radio last week.
Perhaps it came too quickly, with Vinicius stepping into the giant shoes left by Cristiano Ronaldo, but now he has matured and, under Ancelotti, is increasingly impressive.
Benzema, left adrift last season as Madrid’s only creative influence and provider of end product, now has a partner he can rely on.
Madrid, in a way, almost denied themselves Vinicius’ gold rush in their summer attempts to sign Paris Saint-Germain forward Kylian Mbappe, who might have taken Vinicius’s spot in the team.
If the striker joins next summer, it now seems clear that he will play with Vinicius, rather than replace him.
Last month’s Clasico performance, during which Vinicius tormented Oscar Mingueza, helped Madrid earn a 2-1 victory at Camp Nou and establish dominance not just over their arch-rivals, but all of Spain.
— Real Madrid C.F. 🇬🇧🇺🇸 (@realmadriden) November 30, 2021
It must be noted that Barcelona’s struggles under now-fired Ronald Koeman and Atletico’s identity confusion have played a part in Madrid’s position as leaders and favourites, but as the league dissolved into chaos, Ancelotti’s steady hand at the wheel became a boon.
Whether it will be enough to help Real Madrid go deep in the Champions League, battling on an even footing with Bayern Munich, Chelsea, Manchester City & Co. remains to be seen, but with Vinicius in his rich vein of form, no defence in football will look forward to facing him.
Last season, Chelsea outclassed Madrid in the Champions League semi-finals, but Benzema was left with Vinicius’s inconsistent past-self and the perennially disappointing Eden Hazard for company.
However, while Madrid fans have since stopped expecting anything from the Belgian, they are now revealing in Vinicius’ emergence as a world-class player.
Tough games lie ahead, including Wednesday’s clash with Athletic Bilbao and Saturday’s trip to face Real Sociedad, but Ancelotti and his new protégé have defied expectations this season and helped Madrid hit the winter stretch with high morale and lofty ambitions.