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Carlo Ancelotti's success in Europe tainted by lack of domestic titles

Real Madrid's Champions League title last May was Carlo Ancelotti's third as a manager.
Real Madrid's Champions League title last May was Carlo Ancelotti's third as a manager.

It wasn't exactly a new scenario for Carlo Ancelotti, so he pointed to an old excuse. Real Madrid had just been beaten 2-1 by Barcelona in the latest Clasico, leaving the Italian again looking up at another leader in a title race, and he duly deflected by pointing to the quality of the display and competitions beyond the domestic front.

"We are disappointed, but it is better to have better feeling in the way we played," Ancelotti said. "We can have more confidence in the future games in the league and the Champions League."

He can certainly have confidence in regards to the latter. Ancelotti has famously won the joint highest number of Champions Leagues, with three alongside former Liverpool boss Bob Paisley, and clearly has a knack for continental competition. But in regards to the domestic league, it's a lot more complicated, and shouldn't inspire the same confidence.

It's actually one of the game's great contradictions. How can a manager with such a historic record in Europe have such an average record in regards to league titles?

Despite spending 18 consecutive years at the continent's wealthiest clubs, Ancelotti only has three domestic medals. In Italy, he was often described rather disparagingly as a "perpetual runner-up", but that is only half the story. In half of those 18 years, he has actually finished third or lower in the league. It is barely even a 'good' record given the clubs he's been at, who should always expect to be at least competing. It is about par.

For context, compare that to his most successful peers, the type of managers that winning three Champions League titles should put you alongside.

Paisley won the league with Liverpool six times in nine years, and finished second twice. Ferguson won 13 titles in 27 years at Manchester United, and was runner-up on another seven occasions. Jose Mourinho has meanwhile won seven titles in 11 seasons at such competitive clubs, and only finished lower than second once -- last season.

For all the obvious prestige of the Champions League, these types of records display the relentlessness that really separates the elite managers, that hard-edged competitive baseline. These are qualities that Ancelotti doesn't seem possess, even if he does possess all those European medals.

The issue is almost the difference in competitions. The fact that it is a cup competition means it is far more open to blind luck and all the one-off nuances that knock-up football involves, although a canny coach can roll the dice and surf those idiosyncrasies. Ancelotti has often managed that, but leagues just aren't open to fortune in the same way. They tend to reflect reality much more, whether that is rewarding the wealthiest team or the best manager.

As Bayern Munich's Karl-Heinz Rummenigge said on appointing Pep Guardiola in the summer of 2013, "The Champions League is a competition where there are no guarantees and the things you take for granted in domestic football don't always work."

Whereas managers like Guardiola and Mourinho have succeeded Ferguson as the closest to a sure thing in football, Ancelotti offers none of those guarantees.

His teams are oddly undependable. Just look at his big-game record, which Spanish newspaper AS Spain's Diario As raised in the aftermath of the latest Clasico defeat. For a man who the big teams turn to when they need a safe pair of hands, Ancelotti hasn't exactly turned over their main opposition much: In 71 league games against other top-four teams, he has won 26, drawn 17 and lost 28.

Along the same lines, his famous Champions League collapses with Milan against Deportivo la Coruna and Liverpool have parallels with some poor finishes to league campaigns. You only have to look at the way Real Madrid fell away last season.

Ancelotti has also himself admitted that it was a bad domestic title race that actually helped him win his first Champions League, with Milan in 2002-03.

"We had lost our determination in Serie A, so our focus was now on the European Cup," he wrote in his autobiography. That book was jokingly -- but also accurately -- titled 'I prefer Cups'.

He certainly isn't an autocrat with the same aggressive arrogance as Ferguson or Mourinho. The Italian simply sees life, and the game, in a different way. It is probably the reason that makes Ancelotti such an adept knock-out round coach -- not to mention a very likeable man -- and also makes him a relatively average title-race manager.

Consider Paolo Maldini's description of the type of coach he is in a dressing room: "Carletto remains what he has always been: an unparalleled comedian. He managed to crack jokes before the Champions League final. He talks about roast dinners, he cocks an eyebrow, and we go on to win, because we are relaxed."

The vast majority of those in the game say this is often the best approach to big one-off games, because the problem is usually that the top players are over-motivated. In that case, Ancelotti is perfect. It is not perfect, however, for maintaining that hardness and intensity throughout a season.

"Out of all the locker-room management techniques I've witnessed, his is definitely the least problematic," Maldini elaborated. "He holds in all his own worries and pressures, and so the team preserves its tranquility."

That is essentially the opposite of the likes of Ferguson, Guardiola and Mourinho, who have always instilled a competitive intensity, a real hardness. The difference tends to tell when the margins are slimmest.

It means there is a significant gap between their league records and that of Ancelotti. None of this is to say the Italian is not a good manager. His Champions League record means he will go down in history. It does not, however, necessarily mean he is one of the best coaches in history.

To change that, he needs to change his league record in the future.

Miguel Delaney covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MiguelDelaney.


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