Real Madrid need to tune in to their BBC
ROUND OF 16, SECOND LEG
REAL MADRID v SCHALKE
(Tomorrow, 3.40am, Singtel TV Ch 111)
- Real lead 2-0 from first leg
Carlo Ancelotti must feel like the late George Best.
As the old story goes, when a bellboy brought champagne to Best's hotel suite, he found the Manchester United legend with a naked Miss World and thousands of pounds in casino winnings on the bed.
The bellboy asked: "Mr Best, where did it all go wrong?"
Ancelotti faces a similarly surreal interrogation.
His Real Madrid side host Schalke tomorrow morning (Singapore time) chasing an 11th successive victory in the Champions League and a record-equaling 12th win at home in the competition.
And yet journalists can only ask variations on the George Best question.
Mr Ancelotti, where did it all go wrong?
With a 2-0 advantage from the first leg, only a calamitous night at the Bernabau could deny the Spanish giants a safe passage to the quarter-finals and they are nipping at Barcelona's heels in La Liga with another Clasico to come.
But Ancelotti stands accused of being antiquated. He's being called a tactical Luddite, a manager chained to the same, predictable formation.
For Ancelotti, rotation is for the weak. If it ain't broke, don't fix it.
Real Madrid aren't broken. But they are exhausted. Their hallowed BBC is switched off and the picture now looks less promising.
Those striking images of Karim Benzema, Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo before Christmas are fading. Only white noise remains.
Individually and collectively, the stats are damning. Between the three of them, they have 15 goals in 14 official games in 2015.
Ancelotti's 4-3-3 formation is built around the BBC. Real are entirely calibrated around the malleable, moving parts of Benzema, Bale and Ronaldo. When they malfunction, the machine breaks down.
And they are floundering.
Bale needs to win cup competitions practically on his own to raise the Madrid mood beyond anything other than indifference, so his recent stats of one assist and no goals in his last seven games do him no favours.
Karim Benzema hasn't scored or assisted since his goal against Elche on Feb 22 and Ronaldo has failed to muster even a shot on target in four of his last eight La Liga games.
He's scored five in nine in 2015. In the 14 league games before the New Year, he netted 25 times. He was an Avenger then. Now he's below average.
Real have little time for average. One out of three galacticos can be carried. Two is bad company and three is an unthinkable calamity.
At the turn of the year, there was talk of trebles. Today, there are shortlists of potential candidates to succeed Ancelotti.
The Italian isn't entirely the problem, but his tactical stubbornness isn't offering much of a solution either. His lack of tinkering makes for tired players.
Toni Kroos is a case in point.
At the World Cup's knockout stages, he was a German leviathan, a genuinely monstrous presence in midfield. More than anyone, he paved the way to victory at the Maracana.
Against Athletic Bilbao last weekend, he was a ghost, an empty shell of the man who gave the Brazilians a shellacking in the World Cup semi-final.
He played through both the European summer and winter for country and club and has highlighted his physical struggles to cope without the January break.
Kroos' comments are echoed by his listless performances. He screams for a rest, but his manager hums the same notes, always 4-3-3, and ignores him.
The erratic form and fitness of Sami Khedira have limited Ancelotti's options, but Kroos is losing his way. If he cannot find himself, the BBC cannot retune.
Bilbao were not the first side to discover that if they shut down Benzema, Bale and Ronaldo, they shut down Real Madrid. The lights are already out in midfield.
Injuries certainly haven't helped. Sergio Ramos' presence in both penalty boxes has been sorely missed and the creative alternatives of Luka Modric and James Rodriguez would have offered greater attacking variety.
Ancelotti's bench is surprisingly sparse, looking like a furniture piece in a minimalist showflat.
But his line-up and approach reveal a similar lack of depth. The Italian must change his personnel or reinvigorate Kroos to provide that lost link between midfield and the front three.
If Real keep repeating the same, tired show, opponents can switch off the BBC.
"That’s what you sign up for when you come to Madrid and I’m not allowed to fail during a match, not even with a pass. There are people who are allowed to comment and don’t know anything about football because they’ve never played the game, but that’s the life of a footballer."
- Real Madrid striker Karim Benzema saying the fans and the media are unfair to him
Ancelotti: I will never drop trio
- PHOTO: AFP
Real Madrid boss Carlo Ancelotti has insisted that his star-studded attacking trio of Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale will always start when fit despite a recent dip in form from all three.
The European champions were overtaken at the top of La Liga for the first time in five months on Sunday as Barcelona took advantage of Real's fourth defeat in 14 games in 2015 at Athletic Bilbao 24 hours earlier with a 6-1 thrashing of Rayo Vallecano.
However, Ancelotti believes his faith in the players who delivered a club record four trophies in 2014 will eventually be rewarded.
"As long as they are fit, it is unnegotiable because they have given us a lot," Ancelotti said on the eve of his side's Champions League last-16, second-leg against Schalke tomorrow morning (Singapore time).
"Without doubt, I have confidence in them. There has been a general dip from the team, not just them.
"They have scored less in the last three games, but I think that we have to help the strikers.
"We will play in the same way. We won't change our identity because that is how we feel most comfortable and how the players have produced good results and scored many goals."
Bale has been particularly poor in recent weeks and has not found the net in eight games - his longest goal drought since joining Real from Tottenham Hotspur 18 months ago.
Ancelotti, though, said that it would be unfair to single out the Welshman for criticism given the poor performances of the whole team in 2015.
"I think we would have to drop the whole team using that criteria given the whole team aren't playing well," said the Italian.
"I would have to drop Karim because he hasn't scored in a few games. I would have to drop Cristiano, the central midfielders, I am making a more general consideration of the team that has to improve.
"Everyone must do his bit. I don't think Bale is happy with how he is playing and he understands that he has to improve."
Los Blancos should still ease into the last eight of the Champions League for a fifth consecutive season as they hold a 2-0 advantage from the first leg in Gelsenkirchen three weeks ago.
Real will also be boosted by the return of Bale's former Spurs teammate Luka Modric to the squad for the first time in four months after suffering a torn thigh muscle.
Ancelotti confirmed that the Croatian (above) will start on the bench with the view of giving him a run-out for half an hour in the second half.
Sergio Ramos won't be risked despite returning to training after a month out with a hamstring injury with the Spain international likely to return against Levante on Sunday.
Schalke, meanwhile, enjoyed a far more successful weekend as they registered a first win in five games with a 3-1 victory over Hoffenheim.
That result boosted the Royal Blues' chances of a return to the Champions League next season, but left back Christian Fuchs retains hope of a famous comeback at the Bernabeu.
"We travel now to Madrid in a positive frame of mind, no one will bet on us, so maybe there is a chance for us," he said. - Wire Services.