ROB DRAPER: Guardiola and Ancelotti have replaced Cruyff and Sacchi as coaches of their generation… their Man City and Real Madrid teams look destined for a seismic Champions League final

AC Milan owner and former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi complained when his club signed Carlo Ancelotti in 1987.

“We have a conductor who cannot read sheet music,” he told his coach Arrigo Sacchi. “I told him I would teach him to sing in tune,” Sacchi replied. It turned out that Ancelotti was a maestro.

In the same way, Johan Cruyff has always believed in Pep Guardiola, even when he was a skinny teenager who made little impression.

“They told me they had a skilled player in the youth team,” Cruyff said when he became Barcelona coach in 1988. “So I looked for him on the B team, but he wasn’t there. And then I looked for him in the C-team, and he wasn’t there either. I asked why and they said, “Oh, he’s so small!” I said, “It will grow.” And I put him in the first-team squad.”

We didn’t know it at the time, but football was reinvented by these four names, masters and students. Cruijff and Sacchi are the modern age, a constant reference for anyone who coaches.

Pep Guardiola (left) and Carlo Ancelotti (right) deserve to be seen as the best managers of their generation

Guardiola learned from Johan Cruyff (left) after playing under him at Barcelona

Guardiola learned from Johan Cruyff (left) after playing under him at Barcelona

And then, a generation later, you come to this year’s Champions League, which starts tonight, assess the contenders and conclude that it will probably be a match between Manchester City and Real Madrid, between Ancelotti and Guardiola. Pep vs. Carlo.

Greatness is awarded to those who dominate Europe, not domestic leagues. That is why Guardiola’s Manchester City can only now enter that debate.

The Real Madrid team nicknamed Quinta de Buitre – the Vulture Squad – won five Spanish titles in a row but never the European Cup and were eliminated by Sacchi’s AC Milan, who lost 5-0 in the semi-final of the Europa League Cup of 1989. The first goalscorer of that final match, demonstrating Sacchi’s tactical superiority over the world? Ancelotti.

You could think of another, more recent semi-final to compare it to. Manchester City’s 4-0 victory over Real Madrid was also decisive: a victory for Guardiola over Ancelotti.

Teams win and lose all the time, but sometimes one play stands out. It is rare that two parties that fit together so well and have similar economic resources come together and that one party gains such an emphatic upper hand.

It wasn’t just that they lost: Real Madrid simply couldn’t handle City. Guardiola’s team was on a different level to the club that had won four of the last seven Champions League trophies.

Cruyff’s principles prevailed again, just as when Guardiola won his Champions League trophies as coach at Barcelona in 2009 and 2011. Or when Cruyff took that skinny teenager and made him the center of a team with Ronald Koeman, Michael Laudrup and Hrsitov Stoichkov and won Barcelona’s first European Cup in 1992.

That date resonates because that was the last of the old-style European Cups. From then on we would have a revamped tournament known as the Champions League. Something called the Premier League had just been created in England.

The rules of the game in football would ban the back pass to the goalkeeper, something that would transform the game and favor those who can play from the back. That is to say, Cruijff-like teams.

Ancelotti was part of the great AC Milan in the late 1980s and early 1990s, which achieved great success under Sacchi.

Ancelotti was part of the great AC Milan in the late 1980s and early 1990s, which achieved great success under Sacchi.

Two years earlier, the offside rule had been changed to make a player level, which made it significantly more difficult to set an offside trap and play for a 0–0 or a quick 1–0 win.

The era of negativity was over. Big money television now dominated. Offensive football got rocket fuel. And Cruyff was on the rise, the Total Football, with an attacking view of the game, which gave space to great individuals like Stoichkov and later Romario, which was very much the fashion of the day. Cruyff had reincarnated his great Dutch side of the 1970s when the new dawn broke.

Not that Sacchi was that different. He had great individuals with Marco van Basten and Ruud Gullit. His team played exceptional passing football.

But if you wanted a one-line summary – which is of course ridiculously insufficient – ​​AC Milan controlled the space, where Barcelona controlled the ball. Cruyff believed that the team system was designed to support individual brilliance, while Sacchi believed primarily in his team.

“Many believe that football is about players expressing themselves,” Sacchi said. ‘But that is not the case. The player must be able to express himself within the manager’s parameters.’

Cruyff’s team was also well trained and yet somehow the individual always seemed king. His long-standing philosophical difference with Louis van Gaal boiled down to the fact that he felt his fellow Amsterdammer was making the game too complicated. “The difference is that he always organizes a lot of things for people,” Cruyff said. ‘And I always use the basic quality of people to achieve what I want to achieve.’

But just as quickly as Cruyff’s football took hold in the 1990s, it was also systematically dismantled in perhaps the biggest and most important Champions League final since Real Madrid defeated Eintracht Frankfurt 7-3 in 1960.

The 1994 final, which AC Milan won 4-0 against Cruyff’s Dream Team, was even more astonishing than City’s performance last May. “The press, especially the foreign media, had not given us hope,” said Paolo Maldini, mainstay of Milan’s extraordinary back four. And it’s true that everyone was a little in love with Cruyff’s extraordinary team, which had many of City’s qualities.

They were picked apart and found themselves 4-0 down within the hour, barely giving AC Milan a glove. Ancelotti had retired at the time and was now assistant to Sacchi with the Italian national team.

This victory belonged to Fabio Capello and although, as Jonathan Wilson points out, there was an evolution from Sacchi to Capello, AC Milan was still Sacchi’s creation, just as Liverpool’s was Bill Shankly, even if Bob Paisley won much more.

Ancelotti will certainly reflect on this tactical duel as Real Madrid prepare for this year’s competition, which could be his last when he takes up coaching Brazil next summer. Last year’s semi-final was cathartic.

AC Milan showed that Cruyff's Barcelona could be beaten when they defeated 4-0 in the Champions League final in 1994

AC Milan showed that Cruyff’s Barcelona could be beaten when they defeated 4-0 in the Champions League final in 1994

Ancelotti will hope to draw inspiration from this as his Real Madrid side look to stop Guardiola's Manchester City this season

Ancelotti will hope to draw inspiration from this as his Real Madrid side look to stop Guardiola’s Manchester City this season

Yet he has lived long enough to know that it is not a permanent marker, but rather a line in the sand. Ancelotti has won the trophy twice as a player and four times as a coach, Guardiola’s only victory as a player and three times as a coach. So this match, their battle on behalf of their mentors, traverses the modern tournament like no other.

And Ancelotti can take heart. Not least because it was his Real Madrid team that exposed Guardiola’s limitations at Bayern; the 4-0 win at the Allianz Arena in the 2014 semi-final was a masterclass in counter-attack versus possession.

With Jude Bellingham playing behind Vinicius and Rodrygo, perhaps he has fresh kryptonite for Pep’s supermen? There is a joyful pragmatism in what Ancelotti creates without a centre-forward.

Perhaps Cruijff’s dominance will be overturned as quickly as it was in the 1990s. But for now, this seismic battle of wills will dominate the tournament. And at some point, surely we have to get Manchester City v Real Madrid Part II? Preferably in the final.


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