Real face tough task to get back to the top

MILAN • After winning the Champions League three years in a row, Real Madrid have gone three years without getting close, and it is up to Carlo Ancelotti to put the club back where they believe they belong.

Real reached the semi-finals last season but were beaten by eventual champions Chelsea, whose 3-1 aggregate win should have been more emphatic.

A pair of deflating losses in the last 16 in the previous two seasons to Ajax and Manchester City also served as a painful reality check for the Spanish giants.

An iconic generation grew older and many key players have departed, with Cristiano Ronaldo, Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane all gone.

Zinedine Zidane, the coach, left too at the end of last season.

His replacement, Ancelotti, has a tough job of reclaiming the Champions League when set against the trajectories of City, Chelsea, Manchester United and Paris Saint-Germain.

United, City and Chelsea spent around €400 million (S$635 million) combined in the summer transfer window, while PSG gladly swept up Ramos and Lionel Messi.

Real, meanwhile, made a profit of €20 million - deals for Eduardo Camavinga and David Alaba easily offset by the sales of Varane and Martin Odegaard.

Ancelotti's job now is to manage the year with Luka Modric, 36, and Karim Benzema, 33, the ageing leftovers of Zidane's conquering side.

There are talented youngsters too, like Vinicius Jr and Rodrygo in attack and Miguel Gutierrez at left-back. Camavinga, 18, also showed in Sunday's debut - when he scored against Celta Vigo just six minutes after coming on - that he can be key.

If Ancelotti can revive the injury-prone Eden Hazard, Real still have a competitive side.

Yet the odds are stacked against the Italian, as the base of European football's power shifts away from Spain, in the direction of England and Paris.

Ancelotti's appointment was perhaps even an admission of that - a low-maintenance, popular, potentially short-term coach, capable of making the most of what he has and trusted not to demand more.

Inter Milan at the San Siro today will offer his side their first test in Group D, with the Italian champions also undergoing their own upheaval.

Having sold two of their best players in Achraf Hakimi and Romelu Lukaku, and Simone Inzaghi replacing Antonio Conte as coach, the hosts' primary aim is just to get to the knockout phase - something they have not achieved since 2011-12.

On their poor record since winning the 2010 European Cup, Inzaghi said: "That's a statistic that we want to change.

"Now, we have a great chance to write an exciting new page."

Inter will miss Stefano Sensi, while Real will be without Gareth Bale, Toni Kroos, Dani Ceballos, Marcelo and Ferland Mendy.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 15, 2021, with the headline 'Real face tough task to get back to the top'. Subscribe