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Carlo Ancelotti is the greatest of his generation

Borussia Dortmund 0-2 Real Madrid (Carvajal 74’, Vinicius 83’)

WEMBLEY — There is a specific look that the camera catches with Carlo Ancelotti. It usually comes several seconds after a significant goal, after the focus has been shone on whichever superstar or foot soldier has bailed Real Madrid out of another fine mess and onto something magnificent. Ancelotti is not the type of character you pan to first.

The look says (and you all know it): “Sorry, what exactly were you worried about? I am Carlo – are you not familiar with my work?”. It has the hint of a knowing smile, as if he can’t quite believe he has got away with it so many times. Then the smile is overshadowed by Serious Face, as Ancelotti plans how he is going to get away with it next time too. Same time next year, everyone?

The recovery started on the wings, as it so often tends to do for these magnificent men in white. When Real Madrid needed heroes, needed helpers to arrest a worrying trend, they turned to those two Brazilian wide forwards and asked them to weave them a different ending.

In the space of three second-half minutes, Rodrygo and Vinicius Jr both skinned a full-back and won a corner. Finally, Madrid had their release. You know the rest by now. Five minutes later and all the world was theirs. Twas ever thus.

Real Madrid have won 15 European Cups and nothing else matters. Poor performance? Pah. The ultimate kings of getting it done, got it done. They reason here, now and forever, that those who score last laugh longest; Madrid make sure that they always do. They have played 18 European Cup finals and have won 15 of them. Nothing, nobody comes close.

The first goal was not fitting; not really. On the balance of play, Real Madrid didn’t deserve to score at all, so when it came we at least hoped for something beautiful. A simple Toni Kroos corner, whipped six yards away from goal, was flicked in by Dani Carvajal. Replace beauty with historical significance: those two players alone have now won 11 Champions Leagues between them.

The clincher had all the hallmarks of greatness that this team possesses. The ball was won high up the pitch, a mistake made by a tired player forced by a side that never seems to lose all energy.

Jude Bellingham played in Vinicius and, three seconds later, another triumph was secured beyond all doubt. Bellingham fell to his haunches as if knocked over by relief. This had not been his final, but when you wear this shirt you always get your moment to make the difference.

Borussia Dortmund did not deserve this. They were everything we hoped for and everything but the goal. Those of us concerned that Edin Terzic may try and sit deep to soak up pressure and risk becoming one-dimensional were made to look deeply foolish and basked in our misguided fears. Dortmund pushed high, pressed and looked to counter at speed.

Real Madrid's Italian coach Carlo Ancelotti (C) celebrates with his medal after winning the UEFA Champions League final football match between Borussia Dortmund and Real Madrid, at Wembley stadium, in London, on June 1, 2024. Real Madrid wins the Champions League final 2 - 0 against Borussia Dortmund. (Photo by Paul ELLIS / AFP) (Photo by PAUL ELLIS/AFP via Getty Images)
Ancelotti celebrates alongside his players at Wembley (Photo: Getty)

More surprising still: it worked. Marcel Sabitzer and Emre Can were able to pick passes as well as intercept them. With Real Madrid frustrated at their inability to create clear chances, full-backs Ferland Mendy and Carvajal pushed higher and higher to try and produce overlaps. That left space behind.

The first half became distilled into the joys and disappointment of Karim Adeyemi. Adeyemi is lightning quick, you must understand, the type of wide forward who dashes 15 yards in the time of a defender’s blink. He does not need to risk offsides because he’s backing himself to get there anyway.

But that’s only the fun stuff. When Dortmund signed Adeyemi from Red Bull Salzburg, he was supposed to be the next one, following Jadon Sancho, Bellingham and Erling Haaland in the Dortmund buy-develop-sell-buy loop. Two years on, it’s never quite happened how it was supposed to.

The same is entirely true of this season, for reasons very good and distinctly worse. This was a magical run against the odds, but if you can tell for sure where this team goes next then congratulations.

Adeyemi was not the only one who missed a chance; just the first. Niclas Fullkrug struck a post while two headers from corners went over in just the manner that Carvajal’s didn’t. There was an inexactness to everything in the penalty box that clanged awkwardly against their excellence everywhere else.

We knew what that meant. Madrid knew what that meant. Most crucially of all, Dortmund knew what that meant. Five, six, seven or more times over the last half decade alone we have presumed that this team had buried themselves alive only to see the sand stir and the beast reawaken. You cannot just kill Real Madrid – you must exorcise the entire orbit in which they exist.

That is now a prophecy fuelled by its own power. Every chance you miss against Madrid counts for double because it only makes them stronger. Ancelotti’s team were desperate for 70 minutes but they are always the most desperate to win. There is a self-belief that is never shaken and it is overseen by one of the most remarkable managers that the game has ever known.

When Carvajal’s header hit the net, when Real Madrid players and coaches and medical staff and others with long job titles and excited dispositions went crazy, Ancelotti turned around and pumped his fist.

There was that look, perhaps too an eyebrow raise he should trademark. But then it’s back to the business of keeping calm and staying perfect.

That is the most deeply frustrating aspect of all this for every other club. If Manchester City or Paris Saint-Germain had built this dynasty, we could reason that nobody can cope with state super-wealth.

Madrid are no paupers, clearly. But it’s not the spending nor the supreme talent that seems to make them the best. It’s the intangibles: fight, desire, belief, winningness. It’s the essence of Ancelotti.

There is nobody like Carlo, no one else who mixes humility, man management and tactical pragmatism quite the same. On achievement alone, he is the greatest of his generation at dragging individual talent forward together in every situation in the biggest moments. He deserves this more than anyone.

Kroos retires at the top. Bellingham becomes the world superstar. Vinicius and Rodrygo sit on top of their own worlds and Real Madrid become Europe’s dominant force in an age of state ownership – it’s all because of Ancelotti. There are two elites in European football: Real Madrid and everybody else.

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