SERGIO RAMOS, one of the figureheads of the modern Real Madrid, will sit out the second leg of the UEFA Champions League round of 16 tie with Manchester City. At 33, you never know if it will be the last Champions League campaign for the “Svengali of white-shirted bastardism”, to quote a leading UK journalist reporting on the 2018 final in which Ramos did his worst to ensure Mo Salah left the field early enough to blunt Liverpool’s attack.
Ramos’ departure coincided with the penalty that gave Manchester City a 2-1 win in the Bernabéu Stadium, a result that gave Pep Guardiola’s team an excellent chance of making the last eight of the competition. It may also have signalled the end of the Real Madrid team that won four Champions League titles in a five-year period that ended in 2018.
Seven players that started against City kicked-off Real’s last UCL final in 2018 and not one had less than three winners’ medals in his trophy cabinet. In short, this was a team that knew how to negotiate the Champions League and its knockout stage, but there was one important, influential name missing from the club’s recent glorious run – Cristiano Ronaldo. Without CR7, Real lack star quality – particularly in the absence of injured big-money signing Eden Hazard – and are painfully short on self-belief. For this current squad, the future is clearly behind them.
There have been signs of decline for more than a year now. In 2018-19, Real Madrid lost 12 La Liga games, the highest number of losses since 1998-99. The most defeats suffered by any Real side in a season is 13 (1973-74). With Cristiano Ronaldo gone, Real’s goal tally suffered and dropped from 94 to 63, the worst haul since 2000. Prior to 2018-19, Real had netted over 100 league goals in each of the previous eight campaigns.
Three managers in one season in 2018-19 was an indication that all was not well in Chamartín and the reappointment of Zinedine Zidane a hint of some desperation in the air. Real spent heavily in the summer of 2019, but what did they get for their € 360 million? There was no apparent replacement for Cristiano Ronaldo for the second successive close season, although Hazard was seen as the next marque signing. Unfortunately, the former Chelsea man has scored once in 15 games and is likely to be sidelined for the rest of the season. It’s not healthy to become a forgotten man at a club like Real Madrid.
Too many players in key positions are now over 30 and some may need to start moving on – Ramos (33), Luka Modrić (34), Toni Kroos (30), Marcelo (31), Gareth Bale (30) and Karim Benzema (32).
Real went into the first leg with Manchester City on the back of a 1-0 defeat against Levante. One point from two league games handed the initiative to Barcelona in the title race and on top of that, Zidane’s men were knocked out of the Copa del Rey at home by Real Sociedad. Meeting City, a team that may be in the last chance saloon given they face a possible two-year European ban from the end of 2019-20, was not the ideal pairing in the last 16. With the Premier League title now out of reach, City and Guardiola need success in the Champions League to cement their golden spell under Pep and his pay-masters. He hasn’t won the imposing big-eared trophy since 2011.
A strategic 2-1 win in the Bernabéu showed Spain that one of their own had tricks up his sleeve and how sweet it must have been for a Barca man to win in the capital. Guardiola surprisingly left-out Raheem Sterling, Fernandinho and Sergio Agüero from the starting line-up and used Kevin De Bruyne and Bernando Silva in central attacking roles. The way City came back from a goal down not only endorsed the coach’s tactical gamble, it also showed the character of his team.
This is the second season running that Real have received a reminder that old father time can be a vicious and unforgiving visitor to your stadium if you have no succession plans. Last year, it was Ajax’s young blond braves that stunned the holders with a 4-1 win that announced the beginning of the end. Now City have made them sit up and acknowledge that the empire really has come to a close.
It couldn’t have come at a worse time. Both Real and City have a vital week or two that will shape their season. Real welcome (if that’s the right word) Barcelona to the Bernabéu for the second Clásico , knowing full well that another defeat may spell the end of their league title bid. Not that Barca are the force of old, they have, more than most, benefitted from Real’s malaise and even Lionel Messi has said his club are not strong enough to win the Champions League this year.
Meanwhile, City have the EFL Cup final at Wembley against Aston Villa and then meet Sheffield Wednesday in the FA Cup fifth round. By the time Real and City meet again at the Etihad, the season may look very different.