The veteran captain has hardly been in great form during the last few weeks, and the team’s problems during Wednesday’s 4-1 defeat clearly ran much deeper than the presence of just one player would have been able to solve.
However, the fact that Ramos was absent due to a self-inflicted suspension was highly significant from another perspective, because it is symptomatic of a casual complacency which has served to spectacularly undermine the team’s season.
Whatever you think lies behind the wretched campaign endured by Los Blancos, one thing is for certain: you cannot say the players aren’t good enough.
This is more or less the same squad that won the league and European double in brilliant fashion just a couple of years ago, and there have even been a few games this season – as recently as last month in the Madrid derby victory over Atlético, for example – when Los Blancos have looked capable of beating anyone on their day.
The fact that ‘their day’ has rolled around with increasing infrequency cannot be explained by a lack of talent, but in large part by an attitude of arrogance which is perfectly illustrated by the sight of their captain deliberately missing a Champions League knockout tie because he took it for granted they were already through.
Other instances of this attitude can be cited, starting at the very top of the club with president Florentino Perez blithely assuming he could get away with poaching the manager of the Spanish national team on the eve of the World Cup.
Or you could point to the club’s entirely self-serving attitude towards the introduction of VAR – criticise it when decisions go against you, praise it when they work in your favour – as an indication of a club which, at all levels, appears to have lost a sense of responsibility and sacrifice, expecting success to come easily, assuming that something, anything, will eventually come along to save the day simply because ‘we are Real Madrid’.
Trophies can do that. When you win all the time, as Real Madrid did with an incredible run of three consecutive Champions League titles, it’s easy to start assuming that silverware will continue to be accrued automatically, as a matter of course.
There are plenty more examples of sporting teams suffering dramatic implosions after losing their edge, and the biggest secret of Sir Alex Ferguson’s remarkably consistent success at Manchester United was his ruthless determination to repeatedly break up his title-winning teams before the rot could set in.
At Real Madrid, the opposite has happened: nearly everybody has remained from the peak of the club’s recent glories in 2016, and the competitive spark which allowed that success to be achieved in the first place has been gradually eroded to create an apathetic state of entitlement.
Not everybody has stayed, of course, and no consideration of Madrid’s current campaign would be complete without mentioning Cristianao Ronaldo and Zinedine Zidane.
The two most iconic members of the Bernabeu house left for their own and different reasons, but the key thing is what happened next: neither were adequately replaced. Entering the new season with a manager who had never enjoyed meaningful success at club level and a squad lacking a potent goalscorer speaks volumes to the carefree, take-it-for-granted attitude which prevailed, and it’s unavoidable that they have been missed when nobody was recruited to take their place.
Zidane, of course, saw all this coming. Upon his departure, the Frenchman openly admitted he did not know how he could keep the team successful. He knew the rot had set in. And, unlike Ferguson at Old Trafford, he knew that he would not be given the power to carry out the necessary surgery.
Real Madrid don’t necessarily need sweeping changes in personnel, but they need a change in culture. In the end, their complacency caught up with them.
The talk going into the last week was that three games in seven days, two Clasicos last week and Tuesday’s Champions League fixture, would define Real Madrid’s season. Losing both games against Barcelona thus piled on the pressure on Los Blancos and manager Santiago Solari in particular, especially as this round of 16 second leg represented Madrid’s last hope of silverware for the season.
Now they’ve lost all three, and Solari is likely on the verge of being sacked. It’s not just that Madrid managed to squander a 2-1 first-leg lead at home, it’s that unfancied Ajax came into the Santiago Bernabeu and beat the side that had won this competition an unprecedented three straigh seasons by a stunning 4-1 scoreline – and it could have been worse.
Solari is probably on the brink of being sacked by Madrid after Tuesday’s result. Here’s a look at how it all went wrong.
Goals – 1
Shots – 20
Shots on target – 8
Possession – 57%
Passing Accuracy – 80%
Chances created – 18
Madrid started with purpose, and should have gone ahead when Raphael Varane headed against the crossbar in the fifth minute. But everything went wrong after that. Ajax scored two quick goals, then Lucas Vazquez and Vinicius Junior went off injured.
Solari seemingly roused his players at halftime as they began the second half on the front foot again, but Ajax scored a third amid another VAR controversy. Asensio briefly gave Madrid hope, but Schone’s stunning free-kick ended it and possibly pushed Solari towards the Madrid exit door.
TACTICAL TALKING POINT
Solari’s lack of plan B
A common criticism levelled at Zinedine Zidane during his tenure was that he wasn’t a great tactician, and just had great players. Solari has the same players – other than Cristiano Ronaldo, in fairness a big miss – but the results are worse.
Plenty of managers stick to their guns, as Solari did on Tuesday, deploying a familiar 4-3-3. But having no plan B, no contingency for your team going 2-0 or 3-0 down – Zidane would have thrown all his attacking players on and switched to 3-5-2 or 4-2-4 – is poor management.
Tuesday was a perfect storm for Solari. Two first-half injuries. A goal that should have been disallowed by VAR – though some will say justice was done after Ajax controversially had a goal disallowed in the first leg. And it seemed every Ajax shot was flying into the corner.
But Solari will deservedly take some slack. There was no discernible reaction to going 2-0 down other than hoping his players would improve. They should have, but that doesn’t give their manager a free pass.
RATING – 2/10
The Bernabeu club’s season is now effectively over, with two losses against Barcelona ending their hopes in domestic competition and now their dreams of securing a fourth consecutive European crown shot to pieces in a sensational capitulation.
There will clearly be huge reverberations and ramifications, and the post-mortem is likely to run for many weeks as the explanations for a completely disastrous season are sought.
So what happens now? Where does this leave Real Madrid? Let’s consider the consequences.
With half an hour played, Madrid boss Santi Solari must have been looking up to the heavens and wondering what he had possibly done to deserve such ill fortune. Not only had his team fallen 2-0 behind on the night, 3-2 on aggregate, but he had also lost both his starting wingers with Lucas Vazquez and Vinicius Junior both forced off through injury.
Solari had a pair of ready-made top-quality alternatives available in the form of Gareth Bale and Marco Asensio, who have been first-choice starters on many occasions over the last couple of seasons and had a point to prove after being relegated to the bench.
But there was no improvement in fortunes for his team and Solari must now be in serious and imminent danger of the axe. Jose Mourinho, in particular, has been heavily linked with the Bernabeu hotseat and that speculation will inevitably increase. Perhaps the main question is how can Solari possibly survive after suffering two Clasico defeats and a humiliating Champions League exit in the space of a week. But is Mourinho available now? If not, who can step in? Raul? Fernando Hierro? Or can Solari stay? We’ll find out soon.
Ramos under fire
Madrid skipper Sergio Ramos was missing from the encounter after collecting a booking in the first leg, but it was a self-inflicted absence after he deliberately forced a yellow card in the dying stages after his team took the lead.
Ramos obviously felt that the job was already more or less done with a 2-1 advantage from the meeting in Amsterdam, but his pride most certainly came before a fall as his team-mates dramatically failed to finish the job they had started.
It’s debatable whether the outcome would have been different if Ramos had been playing, because he has been far from impressive in the last few weeks. But with his team desperate to maintain their chances of retaining the title, surely the presence of the emblematic and fearless warrior leader would have been a blessing. Expect plenty of tough questions to be thrown in Ramos’s direction in the next few days, and a show of public contrition from the defender certainly would not go amiss.
How far can Ajax go?
All the headlines will be about Real Madrid, but more than a few words should be said about Ajax, who were simply magnificent and fully deserved their stunning victory.
Now the question is: how far can they go? Was this their grand final, the summit of their achievements, or will they somehow find a way to regather their senses and physical strength for similar heroics in the quarter-finals?
On an individual level, there will be plenty of speculation over the future of several players in the next few weeks. Frenkie de Jong has already pledged his future to Barcelona, and looks well worth that move, while central defender Matthijs de Ligt and forward Dusan Tadic will certainly have raised a few eyebrows with sensational displays.
For now, though, the task for the Dutch club is to forget about the future and focus on what they may yet achieve this season. And after this showing one thing is certain: nobody will take them lightly in the quarter-finals.