Real Madrid were always going to struggle to cope with losing Cristiano Ronaldo last summer, and during the first half of a miserable season with only one notable bright spot, that challenge proved even tougher than most would’ve imagined. However, Real Madrid are still Real Madrid, winners of four of the last five Champions League titles, possessors of a squad of unimaginable talent and experience and depth. If any team could overcome a terrible spell to start the year and turn it around in time to find themselves legitimate contenders for every trophy, it would be them.
The past month has been far and away the best stretch of Real’s season, and it couldn’t have come at a better time. They’ve won each of their past five matches in La Liga, including a huge win away at their cross-town rivals Atlético Madrid last weekend, and have pulled all the way back into second place in the table within striking distance of league-leading Barcelona. They successfully navigated past Leganés over two legs in the Copa del Rey in the quarterfinals, and earned themselves a creditable 1-1 draw away at Barça in the first leg of the semis that positions them well for a potential spot in the final. The performances haven’t always been the prettiest, but they’ve been enough to keep Real in with a chance for the titles they demand of themselves. And after playing so awfully for practically the entirety of the 2018 half of the season, just staying alive is more than enough to celebrate.
Madrid’s 2-1 win over Ajax in the Champions League yesterday was indicative of their season in a few ways. For one, it was far from comprehensive. Real were wildly outplayed for almost the entire match and were fortunate not to lose, let alone come away with the win. Real captain Sergio Ramos put it best after the match: “Ajax won the beautiful game, but the result was Real Madrid’s.” Secondly, the win turned on a burst of speed and inspiration from Vinícius, the teen phenom who has almost single-handedly saved the Blancos’ campaign, and a cool finish from Karim Benzema, Madrid’s best player this season. And it was only possible for Real to hang in there long enough for the other superstars in the lineup to wake up and snatch the win their collective talent level should’ve made a virtual certainty because of the heroic individual efforts of Ramos, arguably the best big-game player in the entire world:
Ramos was unbelievable all day. Despite facing wave after wave of Ajax attacks, and far too often receiving almost no assistance from any of his teammates, Ramos was able to thwart nearly every single dangerous move by himself. He was a one-man wall standing up to an entire team of wrecking balls, and after getting battered for 90 minutes, somehow he was still standing.
This is what makes Real Madrid so great, and still, even without Ronaldo and in the midst of a bad season, so formidable in their favorite competition. Madrid can put out an entire starting XI of players who have the ability and experience necessary to completely dominate a Champions League knockout match by themselves. Ramos, Raphaël Varane, Casemiro, Luka Modrić, Toni Kroos, Gareth Bale, and Benzema have all done exactly that in the past and can still do it today. Both of their goalkeepers can do it. Isco has done it, too, though he hasn’t featured much this year and might not be called upon to do so for the rest of the season. And young guns Vinícius, Marco Asensio, and Dani Ceballos have all shown so much talent and character that it feels like the only thing keeping them being counted on as candidates to boss a big UCL match by their lonesome is the opportunity to prove it. No other team in Europe comes close to that level of overwhelming individual match-winning talent.
Madrid might not have a deeply embedded playing style, or the individual and collective consistency, or the mindset to accomplish the kind of league dominance Barcelona have enjoyed this past decade, but there is a reason for this team’s unprecedented dominance of the Champions League—and it goes far beyond Ronaldo. No matter how low Real may have fallen prior in the season, no matter how poorly they’ve played in any given match even, they have complete confidence that before long, at least one member of their astounding arsenal of dominators will keep them around long enough for the others to come around too and reassert their true, terrifying level. Ronaldo may have left, but the European Cup still resides in Madrid. Until the final whistle blows and a team has officially stopped the juggernaut, no one should count on that changing any time soon.