Eventually even Carlo Ancelotti tired of repeating the word balance. Equilibrio, equilibrio, equilibrio, he said over and over again until it had become almost a running joke; until January arrived and he announced that it was time to talk about something else. Winning things, for a start. Phase one had been completed and Real Madrid's manager admitted that people were bored of balance. "We've built the house; now we have to decorate it," Ancelotti said. "It's time to talk about titles."
Real Madrid are in the final of the Copa del Rey against Barcelona next month, the Champions League quarter-final draw has been favourable and on Sunday night they face Barcelona in the league in a game that most see as an opportunity not an obligation. Madrid lead the Catalans by four points and Atlético Madrid by three; victory would effectively end Barça's chances of catching them, and victory appears the most probable outcome. It's over 30 matches since Madrid lost.
Recently they have rarely looked like they will lose either. "It is a simple philosophy to play attractive, attacking football," the club's English assistant coach Paul Clement told the Guardian at the turn of the year. "We want to be difficult to beat but when you attack so creatively and openly you're going to concede. We want to attack by building from the back and defending from the front. At first, we weren't getting that but now we're defending more collectively and it shows." The balance that Ancelotti talked of has been found.
In 2013 under Ancelotti, Madrid conceded 25 goals in 26 games. So far in 2014 they have let in just seven in 17. Madrid have more possession and control than at any time in the last three years. Diego López and Iker Casillas have barely had shots to save. Xabi Alonso and Luka Modric have been Spain's outstanding midfielders. At the other end, Karim Benzema has become the perfect facilitator to Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale, while also enjoying his best goalscoring season. Ronaldo's performances have been so good as to be almost ridiculous; Bale has 17 assists and 15 goals.
"We're very hopeful because we've improved a lot. The atmosphere is good, very healthy," Ancelotti said after Madrid defeated Málaga last weekend. They have pulled back 10 points on Barcelona since the last clásico. Madrid were defeated 2-1 that night, the last time they lost. Sergio Ramos played in central midfield and El País claimed: "Nobody came out of this worse than Carlo Ancelotti". A columnist in Marca insisted that the Italian should be sacked on the spot.
If that irritated Madrid's coaching staff it was not so much because of the criticism itself – they recognised that the Ramos experiment had not succeeded – but because of the suggestion that they had taken the decision on a whim. In fact, with Alonso injured and Asier Illarramendi yet to settle fully, the decision had been fully thought through.
Balance is the word and it applies to Ancelotti, too. Outwardly, there was no response and no panic. Not then, not ever. The club's president, Florentino Pérez, insists that the pressure at the club is unlike anywhere else but Ancelotti has barely flinched. Presidential pressure at a club where interference through inference is constant has been handled with tact and intelligence; Pérez has not always been Ancelotti's greatest supporter but the Italian has not allowed that to affect him. Isco and Illarramendi are big new signings whose role has been limited. "If I can, I like to go to the cinema on Wednesdays," Ancelotti says, an apparently banal statement that in fact reveals something of him.
Problems have been overcome with a lightness of touch. When Sami Khedira was injured, Ancelotti and his staff discussed the options and altered the system twice until they found the solution. Ángel di María, irritated at his demotion in favour of Bale, had "accommodated" his genitals in front of the fans (his words); Ancelotti, in turn, successfully accommodated him in midfield. Casillas and López have shared the goalkeeper's role and while the press reaction has been relentless, Ancelotti has remained unmoved, even-tempered.
He always is, win or lose. There has been a calm naturalness to the Italian that has defined this season at the Bernabéu. His eyebrow rises but his voice rarely does. He does not lack authority, he just exercises it differently. He admits that he has only been angry with his players after three games: against Rayo Vallecano, Elche and Levante. When he did raise his voice, he did so in Italian. They understood. "I don't like coaches who say you have to do this because I say so. I like to be on the same level. I am a calm coach, like Del Bosque," Ancelotti said, leaving a comic pause, "or Mourinho".
This is the way Ancelotti is. It may also be the way Madrid needed it. The paradox is that the best thing Mourinho bequeathed to Ancelotti may have been scorched earth. The players feel liberated now; the tension and division has subsided. Ancelotti has made them comfortable: the right manager in the right place at the right time. But if they feel liberated, they also feel like the protagonists in this piece and they are determined too. Last season Madrid won nothing and the players have something to prove and people to prove it to.
On Sunday, they face Barcelona with the chance to move seven points ahead of their rivals. It has been an extraordinary run, built on balance. Win this time, though, and the talk will be of titles. Just as Carlo wanted.