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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 October 2018

The miracle of Istanbul: Carlo Ancelotti needs no extra motivation when it comes to beating Liverpool

The Napoli manager is one of the Champions League's most successful, winning it three times. Some of his best nights have come against Liverpool, but so has the very worst

Napoli manager Carlo Ancelotti has a storied history against Liverpool, Wednesday's opponents, in the Uefa Champions League. AFP
Napoli manager Carlo Ancelotti has a storied history against Liverpool, Wednesday's opponents, in the Uefa Champions League. AFP

Carlo Ancelotti, now in his sixtieth year, will take charge of his 200th European match as a manager next month. It will fall against one of his former employers, Paris Saint-Germain, by which time it will be clearer whether his latest attempt at the competition that he commands as a manager is to run its usual extended course.

Ask Ancelotti which of the 197 Uefa matches he has patrolled a touchline for is his most cherished, and he will pause, before picking, from the three finals he has won - two with AC Milan and one with Real Madrid - and linger on 2007 in Athens. That was especially fulfilling. As for the European fixture that leaves the gloomiest souvenirs, no doubt: It was the defeat by Liverpool in the Istanbul final of 2005.

Ancelotti has never replayed that final, watched again the extraordinary turnaround that turned Milan’s 3-0 half-time lead into a loss, on penalties, and which in turn drove "Carletto" Ancelotti and his Milan players to celebrate Liverpool’s joining them in the final two years later. “Written by destiny,” he called the 2007 final, it was the payback for Istanbul, a smoothly executed 2-1 win.

Carletto versus the Kop has had a few reruns since then, tussles during Ancelotti’s period in the Premier League, which he won with Chelsea, and in a pair of Real Madrid Uefa Champions League victories, when his Madrid were the title-holders, in 2014. Wednesday will feel distinct for the fact that he is in charge of a club, Napoli, with far less pedigree in the competition than his opponents, Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool, and with some catching up to do already in a demanding Group C where PSG have already lost at Anfield and Red Star Belgrade held Napoli to a goalless draw.

Just over a year ago, Ancelotti was sacked by Bayern Munich after a humiliating Matchday 2 of the Champions League - PSG beat the German champions 3-0 - and the speculation of where his next destination might be was quickly followed by another question: What’s left to conquer? This remarkable traveller through 21st century European football has won the league in Italy, with Milan, and in England, with Chelsea, in France, with PSG, and in Germany, with Bayern, and he is the only one in a select group of managers with three European Cups to have spread them across more than one club.

He seemed an almost perfect fit for the Italy national team, for whom he played in midfield 26 times, but turned down their approaches. But a return to Italian football, where he last worked 10 seasons ago, at Milan, became tempting when Napoli announced they would be saying goodbye to Maurizio Sarri after three years of dynamic progress. It was an inheritance that would have unnerved other coaches, Sarri having established his own idiosyncrasies, left a well-defined stamp and gained the affection of Naples.

Ancelotti’s Napoli neither ape Sarri’s version nor are they under a manager with an urgent desire to shape them according to dogmas of his own. Liverpool, expert pressers and devastating counter-attackers, must anticipate periods of sustained possession from their hosts, and that Napoli will push forward to a raucous, stirring soundtrack at the San Paulo, one of those rare arenas where the noise on a midweek night rivals that of Anfield.

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Ancelotti’s Napoli, like Sarri’s last season, are the second best team in Serie A, although the gap at the summit is ominous. Saturday’s 3-1 defeat at Juventus left the Italian league leaders six points clear of Ancelotti’s team, who had taken an early lead in Turin but suffered the dismissal of defender Mario Rui after an hour. “We lost our urgency and allowed Juventus to regain confidence,” Ancelotti said, “so I was angry about that.”

Explosions of anger are not Ancelotti’s trademark, although players who have known him and, in the majority, responded warmly to his style testify there is a ferocity beneath the urbane manner. He is mostly a light-touch manager, and so far his influence on Napoli has been subtle. Most of Sarri’s key men are still Napoli’s key men, although the departure of Jorginho, who went with Sarri to Chelsea in the summer, means others have to share in maintaining control of midfield.

The positives have been the form of Lorenzo Insigne, the homegrown playmaker and scorer of five Serie A goals from seven games. Ancelotti has liberated Insigne from his role on the left of a front three, encouraged him to take up more central positions. There is probably no better ally for a new Napoli manager to cultivate than Insigne, hero of the San Paolo. And there is no better opponent to motivate Ancelotti, on his home debut in his favourite competition with his new club, than Liverpool.