‘Horror’ has got a new definition over the past week, and it has arrived from the most decorated stable in European club football history.
Ahead of Thursday, 28 February, Real Madrid could still dare to dream in three competitions – one of them, unrealistically.
As of Wednesday, 6 March, their hopes, across competitions, are dashed.
It’s the first week of March, and Los Blancos – 33-time Spanish champions, 13-time European champions – find their season over: The earliest ‘end’ to a campaign for the ‘Kings’ in 42 years.
That doomsday arrived on the eve of 6 March, adds poignancy to the pain (or poetry, to those on the Barca side of the ‘Clasico’ divide).
6 March 1902 was the day Real Madrid were born.
Bernabeu’s Week From Hell
- 28 Feb, 0-3 vs Barcelona: Knocked out in Copa del Rey semis after 1-4 aggregate loss.
- 3 Mar, 0-1 vs Barcelona: Fall 12 points behind leaders Barca in La Liga standings.
- 5 Mar, 1-4 vs Ajax: Knocked out in Champions League last-16 after 3-5 aggregate loss.
This devastating streak, lest you forget, was preceded by a 1-2 defeat, also at home, to Girona on 17 February. To the uninitiated, Girona are a club competing in the Spanish top-flight for only the second time – and have a squad value nearly ten times lesser than Real’s.
So the rut has extended for more than a week. And Real Madrid have lost four successive games at the fabled Santiago Bernabeu – a low witnessed only twice before this in the club’s 117-year history, and last seen in 2004.
How did it all go so wrong?
The Price of Arrogance?
It’s an easy road to walk down from the outside, in the name of analysis: Watch a big team combust, blame it on complacency, or over-confidence, write their obituary.
But Real Madrid, at the halfway mark of the eventually ill-fated Champions League round of 16 tie, displayed arrogance in its more blatant form – and it arrived, sadly to some and unsurprisingly to others, from their captain.
Sergio Ramos went and picked up a yellow card in the dying stages of the first leg, with Real leading 2-1 at Ajax – and later suggested, boastingly, that he did it on purpose. “I’d be lying if I said I didn’t force (them to give me a yellow card),” Ramos had said cheekily after the game.
What that meant, was that the defender – worshipped by some, despised by the others – would serve his ban for collecting three yellow cards through the tournament in the second leg against Ajax, and as a result be available for the quarter-final.
He retracted his comments later, but couldn’t prevent UEFA from going ahead and anyway slapping upon him an added game’s suspension – Ramos would still miss the first leg of the quarter-final.
Now, Real Madrid will have no quarter-final, at all.
Would Ajax have been afforded such a free run on the Real goal in Ramos’ presence? Would the Real captain have allowed his team to slip into such an abysmal slumber if he was on the field?
These are questions which will haunt Ramos, and indeed Real, in the post-mortem.
What a night for Sergio Ramos.— SBS - The World Game (@TheWorldGame) March 5, 2019
- Missed the 2nd leg because he got deliberately yellow carded in the 1st leg so he would be free to play in the QFs.
- Watched his side get knocked out for the first time since 2015.
- Was recording a documentary about himself in the Bernabeu. pic.twitter.com/8Ng1uVsSIg
Shock, and a Failure to Take Stock
To many a pundit, this was coming.
To Zinedine Zidane, one would dare say, this was coming.
Why else would a man leading the most powerful club in the world to the unprecedented feat of three back-to-back Champions League crowns vacate his position?
In the same summer, Real also lost a player of noteworthy impact at the head of their lineup.
Did one really expect Real Madrid to be the same without Cristiano Ronaldo? He who banged in 450 goals, and inspired four Champions League titles?
That they didn’t replace the five-time World Player of the Year, was arguably an even more telling sign to what was looming.
Yes, this could have been the moment Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale stepped up, or out, of the shadows. Yes, it could have been the time for Isco and Marco Asensio to rise and shine.
‘Project Madrid’ was handed to one Julen Lopetegui in the summer. Surely, the saga that was his Spain-Real tug-of-war served as another hint of what was to be?
Ironically, Lopetegui’s last act – less than five months after his hiring – was the first of Real’s three defeats to Barcelona, a 5-1 mauling at Nou Camp.
As for Bale, once the world’s most expensive player, the Welshman hasn’t scored at home since September 2018. And the entire Ajax squad draws lesser money than what Real dole out to the 29-year-old.
One Giant Falls; Another Rises?
It wouldn’t be known to the millennials who form a bulk of today’s football viewership, but Ajax are historical giants of the club game.
Their haul of four European Cups is behind only five teams in the competition’s history. But in the 21st Century, the force had turned into bit of a farce – at least until the night of 5 March 2019.
The Dutch heavyweights have seen themselves fall from European champions as recently as 1995, to a ‘feeder club’; one which still possesses enough and more quality at the academy level, but fails to hold on to anything close enough to it more often than not.
Yet, in the last couple of seasons, there has been a slow but sure resurgence. Ajax were Europa League runners-up two years ago, losing to Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United in the final. Last year, they did enough to climb back in Europe’s top-tier after being absent for four seasons.
And they are building this success on the backbone of youth.
Four of the XI which started for Ajax in Madrid weren’t even born when they last won a knockout tie in the Champions League, back in 1996; a fifth was one month old, and one more was yet to turn a year old.
One of Ajax’s more known nicknames is de Godenzonen – ‘Sons of the Gods.’
For the best part of this decade, it’s a mantle that has laid with Real Madrid. As the sun sets on the Blancos’ reign of the 2010s, could it be rising some 1,800 kilometres to their north?
Probably not. But don’t let the weight of hyperbole and expectation take anything away from the night of Ajax’s dreams – and Real Madrid’s nightmares.
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