In a year that the Champions League final will be played just 14 kilometers from the Santiago Bernabeu, Real Madrid’s current team ended up some distance away from resembling a European champion.
For the past three seasons, Real has swept all before it in the Champions League. Nobody had ever won the the tournament twice in a row during the modern era, but Real managed it three times in succession.
Yet for all the club’s recent European success, this season has been, as Real defender Dani Carvajal so bluntly told reporters after his side’s stunning defeat by Ajax on Tuesday, “a piece of s***.”
There will be plenty of football fans across the world enjoying Real’s demise, none more so than neighbor Atletico, which will host this year’s final at its Metropolitano Stadium.
‘Heads will roll’
Tuesday’s humbling 4-1 home defeat by Ajax in the second leg of the last-16 Champions League tie sent Real crashing out of the competition for the first time in 46 months.
The defeat capped a miserable week for Real, which was knocked out of the Spanish Cup by arch rival Barcelona, and then beaten at home in the league by the Catalan giant once again a few days later.
Ajax, which lost the first leg 2-1 to Real in Amsterdam, then produced a scintillating display to administer the most fatal of blows and leave the Spanish club in crisis. While Ajax delivered a futuristic style of football, a jaded Real looked stuck in the past.
Rarely one to shy away from hyperbole, Spanish newspaper Marca labeled it the “failure of the century,” adding that “heads will roll.”
“I have never had this feeling before,” Carvajal told reporters after the game. “I don’t know how to explain it. It’s so bad. In a week we lost it all, we lost it all at home. Is it the end of an era? I don’t see it like that but it is true the season is practically finished for us.
“We have to be professional, we have to stand up, we can’t hide, we know we have had a s*** season and that’s it.”
While Carvajal was keen to air his views in public, a penny for the thoughts of the club’s captain, Sergio Ramos.
This was certainly not the script Ramos would have had in mind as he sat in his corporate box while reportedly filming a documentary for Amazon.
His decision to get himself suspended for this contest by accruing a booking on purpose during the first game in Amsterdam smacked of arrogance. That arrogance, it turns out, was misplaced as no doubt the documentary will show.
For how does a team with the riches and talent of Real Madrid succumb to a side that is second in the Dutch league, and whose budget is dwarfed by the Spanish club.
And not only did it succumb, it was beaten by a side playing a brand of football that was vibrant, energetic and the very antithesis of what Real has offered in recent weeks.
“We’ve had three bad games and lost the illusion of Real Madrid,” Lucas Vazquez told Marca.
“We come from winning three years in a row to losing like this. What we achieved was incredible but this season hasn’t gone as expected. It’s an exaggeration to talk about a change of cycle, but we can’t explain what happened in this past week.”
What’s gone wrong?
No sooner had the final whistle gone and the masses trudged out amid the deepening gloom, the postmortem began.
“I think there are a lot of problems that need to be addressed,” Spanish football journalist Ben Hayward told CNN.
“Gareth Bale is having a tough time, Marcelo too, Isco can’t even make the squad. There are top players who are probably coming to the end at Real Madrid and some rejuvenation and strengthening is required.
“Real Madrid always manage to find a way of getting through and while fans are used to seeing a few scares in the Champions League, they weren’t used to this. It came as a big shock.”
Kings of Europe for over 1,000 days, Real’s defeat marked its first elimination at the last-16 stage since the 2009/10 season.
For a club that won the competition in four of the five past seasons, the nature of this defeat was even more seismic.
The warning signs, though have been there for some time.
Real started the 2018-2019 campaign in disastrous fashion with the club making their worst start to a domestic league season since 2001-02.
Julen Lopetegui, who was removed from his role as Spanish national team coach just two days before the start of the World Cup for holding managerial talks with Real, was fired after just four-and-a-half months in charge at the Bernabeu.
Under Lopetegui, Real took just 14 points from a possible 30, and just one from his final five in charge – the worst run of form the club had endured since the final five games of the 2008-09 season.
His replacement, former player Santiago Solari, has attempted to steady the ship but has been unable to close the gap on leader Barcelona.
Though there is no single factor to blame for Real’s failings, it is difficult to overlook the absence of Cristiano Ronaldo.
Ronaldo, who won four Champions League titles in nine years at the club, left to join Italian club Juventus at the end of last season.
It was thought that Real would be able to replace the man who scored 450 goals in 438 games for the club – including 311 in La Liga.
But that simply hasn’t happened as the statistics show.
Last season, Ronaldo scored 26 goals in 27 La Liga appearances and 44 goals in all competitions.
This season, France international Karim Benzema has managed just 11 in the league, while Bale has scored seven.
Bale, who missed three weeks of action in January with a calf problem, suffered yet another injury during the defeat by Ajax.
Where once Ronaldo would stand up and drag Real through with his sheer brilliance, this team looks a shadow of its former self.
Age, too, is beginning to catch up with a number of players. Luka Modric, the current world footballer of the year, is 33, Ramos is 32, while Benzema is 31.
Perhaps this defeat is the moment signals the changing of the guard and makes the decision by former manager Zinedine Zidane to leave the club at the end of last season a little easier to understand.
Different managers, same story
After taking charge in January 2016, Zidane won nine trophies and lost just 16 times in his 149 games in charge.
He built a team that had proved invincible in European competition, and one that was inspired by Ronaldo’s ability to seemingly produce brilliance on a whim.
His departure came as a surprise to the club’s president Florentino Perez. “I wanted him to stay forever and I wanted to convince him to stay. But I know it was his final decision,” Perez said at a press conference last May.
“Perhaps Zidane knew when to leave,” Hayward said. “He wanted to bring in players during the summer and that wasn’t going to happen.
“There was a sense that something was changing anyway at Real. Last season it finished third in the league, 17 points off title winner Barcelona, and in the Champions League they stumbled through every round but managed to find a way to win that third successive title.
“That really papered over the cracks of quite a disappointing season. The problems were there and now with Ronaldo leaving, they’ve not been able to score the goals they’ve needed. “
Real is now expected to look for a new manager in the summer. Tottenham’s Mauricio Pochettino has been constantly linked with a move to Madrid, though he recently signed a new long-term contract with the London club.
Jose Mourinho, who led Real to the league title in 2012, is currently one of the favorites for the role having been dismissed from his post at Manchester United in December.
Hayward says he expects Solari to remain in charge until the end of the season, and with the pressure building on club president Perez, a swathe of changes could be on the horizon.
“There were chants last night against the president, calling for Florentino Perez to resign so he’s under pressure but I’d be very surprised if he was to leave,” Hayward added.
“He certainly needs to do something and when that’s the case it normally means a coaching change and new players as well.”