Three Time Reigning European Champs to Humiliation – Where it All Went Wrong for Real Madrid

Real Madrid, one of the world’s most prestigious clubs, has been built on a history of success. A major part of that has been their unmatched record in Europe. Los Blancos have an incredible 13 European Cup/UEFA Champions League titles. The closest any team has come to that tally is AC Milan with seven.

A Golden Era Under Zidane

Recently, Real Madrid set a new standard of unprecedented proportions when they won three consecutive UCL titles under Zinedine Zidane. Before that, no team had managed to defend their European crown since the European Cup became the UEFA Champions League. Zidane (who played for Real and won a UCL in 2002), replaced then manager Rafael Benitez in January of 2016 and won the European tournament against city rivals Atletico Madrid.

The following season, Zidane completed a coveted double- Real won La Liga after a four-season drought and defended their Champions League crown after beating Juventus in the final. Finally, in his last season in charge, the former World Cup winner delivered a third UCL trophy, overcoming Liverpool in the final. In his two and a half years as Real Madrid manager, Zidane won nine trophies.

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Real Madrid Celebrating their third UEFA Champions League title

As a result, Real enjoyed one of the finest eras in their storied history.

However, after the third CL title, Zidane departed the Spanish capital,  and eventually, so did Cristiano Ronaldo.

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Cristiano Ronaldo playing for Real Madrid

The Portuguese goal-machine scored an insane number of goals for Los Merengues during his time in Madrid and was the top goal-scorer in the UCL for each of their triumphs under Zidane.

The Misguided Signing of Lopetegui

Julen Lopetegui, who was set to manage Spain during last summer’s World Cup, was named as Zidane’s replacement days before the kickoff in Russia .

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Julen Lopetgui during a press conference 

He planned to stay on with Spain until the tournament ended, but he didn’t communicate this vital information to the Royal Spanish Football Association. Lopetegui was then fired from the Spain job, bringing a huge cloud of controversy with him as he took the reigns at the Santiago Bernabeu.

One concern for Los Blancos fans was where the goals were going to come from now that CR7 was gone. During the summer transfer window, Real Madrid purchased Thibaut Courtois, Alvaro Odriozola, and the only offensive player, Mariano Diaz. The striker performed well at former club Lyon, scoring 18 league goals in 30 games, but he was never going to come close to the numbers Ronaldo had, let alone be considered a player who should be a regular starter.

Julen Lopetegui’s start to life at Real Madrid went well at first, winning five out of his first six official matches, drawing once to Bilbao. After that, things took a turn for the worse. Los Merengues failed to win their next five matches, which included an embarrassing 1-0 away loss to CSKA Moscow, a 1-0 away loss to Deportivo Alaves, and a 2-1 home loss to Levante. A heavy 5-1 defeat to Barcelona in October sealed Lopetegui’s fate, and he was subsequently let go from the job.

Solari, the Gamble that’s Failing

In came former player, Santiago Solari.

Performances improved, but the odd unexpected result still hadn’t totally gone away. Despite an impressive eight-match unbeaten streak (where they managed to defeat Sevilla 2-0, city rivals Atletico 3-1, and tie Barcelona), Real suffered a few shock results (3-0 away loss to Eibar, and perhaps more surprising, a 3-0 home defeat to CSKA Moscow), hinting that something was rotten at the Bernabeu.

Despite their undefeated run, Real Madrid never looked convincing. There was a feeling that they’d need to improve if they were to challenge for a title this season.

Decisions were made that surely affected the team’s locker room and compromised the club’s options off the bench. To start the new year, Los Blancos failed to win their first two games, drawing to Villarreal 2-2 and losing at home 2-0 against Real Sociedad. In the game against Real Sociedad, Marcelo was taken off at the 77th minute. He had also been previously subbed off at the 74th minute during the aforementioned 3-0 home loss to CSKA Moscow.

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Marcelo playing for Real Madrid

From that game on, the Brazilian left-back has been restricted to 5 starts and one substitute appearance out of 16 games the club has played since.

Another player who suffered from Solari’s appointment has been Isco. The Spanish midfielder has only started two games under the Argentine manager. Real Madrid fans have called for their technically gifted player to be given more time, but to no avail. Isco has had to settle for a few minutes off the bench every so often.

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Real Madrid midfielder, Isco, playing for Spain

Los Merengues have a great midfield with players like World Cup winner Toni Kroos, World Cup finalist and Ballon d’Or winner Luka Modric, and Casemiro so Isco isn’t expected to start every game. But, if Federico Valverde, Daniel Ceballos, and Marcos Llorente are getting more game time than Isco, there is certainly an issue there.

The isolation of two of the team’s best players must have negative effects on the squad. Not to mention the sheer stubbornness of Solari to not put these players on when they might help save the team from a negative result.

In La Liga, Real Madrid have conceded the same about of goals as 11th place Leganes with 31 goals after 26 games. They also have the third highest number of goals scored in the league with 43, but it represents a large difference from last season. At the same period last year, the club had scored 62 goals and only 28 goals conceded. Clearly, this shows the impact Zidane and Ronaldo’s departures have had for Real Madrid in the final third.

Under Zidane, a major characteristic of the team was their ability to take their chances. Although Los Blancos may have been second best in a game, give them a chance and they’d score. They were ruthless and punished most mistakes made by the opposition. This current Madrid side lacks the clinical bite and instead, is far too forgiving with their missed opportunities.

Their UCL Round of 16 Opponents: AFC Ajax

Real Madrid were paired up against Ajax in the Champions League Round of 16, a seemingly straightforward tie. However, upon closer inspection, one could see the threat that Ajax posed. The Dutch club are known for producing eceptional young talent and the same rings true today. Players like Matthijs de Ligt, Donny van de Beek, and Frenkie de Jong are the names that immediately spring to mind in this Ajax side. All three have been linked to moves at some of the biggest clubs in Europe; de Jong has already signed for Barcelona and will join them at the end of the season, but what has been key is Ajax’s recent ability to hold on to these players for as long as they have.

The Amsterdam side frequently produces academy graduates that get snatched up fairly quickly after their rise to the first team. These players however, have managed to stay in the team long enough to develop alongside the rest of the squad.

In addition, the recent superiority of PSV Eindhoven in the league has meant that Ajax has decided to invest increasing amounts into signing more experienced players. As a result, Daley Blind and Dusan Tadic joined the club last summer and have since become integral members of the team.

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Ajax defender, Daley Blind, during a training session with the Netherlands

Blind provides the necessary leadership and experience in the defense, while also providing the flexibility to play in a number of positions. Tadic, on the other hand, has been a man on fire since his arrival. In 26 Eredivisie matches, the Serbian has 16 goal and seven assists.  Based on his clinical finishing, the winger has been earning minutes as a center forward.

The First Leg: A Result that Didn’t Tell the Full Story

In the first leg, Ajax performed well and created a number of chances at the Johan Cruyff Arena. Had it not been for VAR, they would have taken the lead in the first half. At times, Ajax were dominant. They even hit the bar three times in the first 45 minutes. However, Real Madrid managed to score first before Ajax answered with an equalizer.

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Ajax in their stadium, the Johan Cruyff Arena

Disappointingly for Ajax, Los Blancos scored a late winner, as the match ended 2-1.

A major talking point after the game was Real Madrid captain Sergio Ramos’s admission that he got a yellow card on purpose to avoid potentially being ruled out of the quarterfinals. Ramos was awared the card in the 90th minute, after Marco Asensio had scored the game winner. He thought the tie was over. Real Madrid thought the tie was over.

It wasn’t.

The Second Leg: The False Sense of Superiority Exposed

In the second leg, Real Madrid had to cope without Sergio Ramos who was handed a two-match ban for his deliberate yellow. An early mistake from Los Merengues gifted an opportunity to Ajax, which they gladly took. Ten minutes later, Tadic produced a moment of magic to escape Casemiro, and dispatched a wonderfully weighted ball to create his team’s second goal. Ajax were 2-0 up after 18 minutes. Ajax were doing what few expected them to do – gain control of the tie.

Into the second half, VAR came into play once again, but this time, in the Dutch side’s favor. A tight decision over whether the ball had left the field of play was reviewed, and it led to an incisive counterattack that Tadic scored with a delightful top corner finish. The goal was eventually awarded to Ajax.

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Ajax attacker, Dusan Tadic, with former club Southampton 

He now had two assists and a goal. The attacker was playing one of, if not the best, game of his life. Marco Asensio scored a goal eight minutes later to give the Spanish side a ray of hope.

But Ajax weren’t done.

Given a free kick just two minutes later, Lasse Schone scored from an unbelievable angle. The position of the set piece made it seem like crossing was the only logical way to take it, but he arrowed the shot into the far side of the goal, and over the outstretched hand of an unsuspecting Courtois.

4-1.

4-1. At the Santiago Bernabeu. The young upstarts at Ajax thrashed the three-time defending champions of Europe, at home, in what has now achieved legendary status in recent Ajax history.

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There are several potential reasons for Real’s staggering collapse. Isco was not named in the squad and so couldn’t provide the creativity to produce dangerous plays or the technical ability to play out of the high press Ajax often used to force mistakes. Ajax had more desire than Real Madrid throughout the game and was often first to second balls. Clinical finishing played a huge factor in deciding the tie. Whereas in the first leg, Ajax squandered many of their chances, they made no such mistakes this time around. Conversely, Real Madrid squandered their chances (which included a Raphael Varane header and a Gareth Bale shot from a tight angle that hit the post). Under Zidane and with Ronaldo in the team, these chances went in more often than not.

Additionally, the first half injuries of Lucas Vasquez and Vinicius Junior drastically affected Real Madrid’s rhythm. Vasquez offered the team width and a threat off of crosses. Meanwhile, Vinicius has been one of Los Merengues more threatening players through his tricky dribbling ability and pace. Bale, who has been booed by his own fans of late, came on as one of their replacements and was largely ineffective. The other player to come on was Asensio. The winger scored Madrid’s only goal, but also didn’t offer much in the final third.

The transition from a Zidane-managed side propelled by the almost supernatural scoring abilities of Ronaldo has not fared well and has been exemplified by their last three games.

Three losses in a row have defined their season has a failure and it’s only March.

Being knocked out the Copa del Rey by Barcelona in the semifinals before losing to them again in La Liga, leaving them 12 points away from Los Cules in top spot, has stripped away any possibility of winning domestic silverware this season (not to mention the utter shame in losing to their bitter rivals two times in a row at home).

The UEFA Champions League had served as Real Madrid’s saving grace for their limited domestic success, but after their Round of 16 elimination to Ajax, that won’t be the case this season.

The club will now play to save face with Zidane returning to the capital, and will surely look to spend heavily this summer, in order to rectify the horrors from this season.  The European Champions have been dethroned and humbled. It’s up to Zidane to get Real firing again. How long it will take this time around, remains to be seen.


Photo citations, in order of appearance:

  1. By Tasnim News Agency, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=64815489
  2. By Антон Зайцев – https://www.soccer.ru/galery/1050902/photo/728404, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=69480772
  3. Nathan Congleton
  4. By Football.ua, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35858517
  5. By Football.ua, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=43902702
  6. By Fars News Agency, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=70103685
  7. By Kathi Rudminat – IMG_9148, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36270515
  8. By Markus Unger from Vienna, Austria – Amsterdam Arena, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29170277
  9. By Solent Creatives from Southampton, United KIngdom – Southampton FC versus Sevilla, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=61515714

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