Carlo Ancelotti has been around long enough to know these are the games that really matter at Real Madrid.
A Champions League last-16 tie against Paris Saint-Germain, with all the noise, the drama and the intrigue, will carry greater significance for Madrid’s president Florentino Perez than any of their other 39 fixtures so far this term.
In 2018, Zinedine Zidane launched his entire coaching career off winning titanic battles like these.
No matter that Real Madrid finished almost 20 points behind Barcelona in La Liga. Zidane marched his team past four European heavyweights in the knock-out stages – PSG, Juventus, Bayern Munich and, in the final, Liverpool – and was instantly hailed a genius.
If success in Europe can excuse domestic failure at Real Madrid, the reverse is also true.
Winning La Liga this season however may not be enough to prevent serious questions being asked about the direction of the club if it is PSG celebrating at the Santiago Bernabeu.
Ancelotti knows the demands better than anyone. He experienced them in 2015, after leading Madrid to the yearned-for ‘La Decima’, the club’s 10th Champions League crown, only to be sacked the following season.
“Madrid is not a club where you put down roots,” he wrote in his book ‘Quiet Leadership’ in 2017. “You are only ever a piece of the project.”
Even when Real Madrid appointed Ancelotti last summer, it felt more like a marriage of convenience, Perez finding a trusted guardian to smoothen out a period of transition after Zidane’s departure and the financial uncertainty caused by the pandemic.
Ancelotti, meanwhile, grabbed an unexpected chance to manage at the very highest level again.
It has worked out better than perhaps either imagined. Real Madrid’s 4-1 win over Real Sociedad on Saturday sent them eight points clear at the top of La Liga, which they will surely now win from here.
A commanding performance certainly suggested they can overturn their 1-0 deficit against PSG.