Football Features

“The Cult of Sergio Ramos” – Real Madrid miss their talismanic captain as Shakhtar stun them in Spain

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 20:09, 21 October 2020

In an incredible night of football, Shakhtar Donetsk shocked Real Madrid with a 2-3 away victory in Spain.

The result instantly puts Real Madrid behind the 8-ball in this group as this should be by far their easiest match of the six they are scheduled to play. The Ukrainian side raced to a three goal lead at half-time and whilst Madrid were more spirited after the break, scoring twice, they couldn’t make that pressure count into a real comeback, having a stoppage time equaliser correctly ruled out.

Madrid look finished.

Real Madrid’s decline is the inevitable combination of age and a lack of top quality investment in the squad. Los Blancos have been hesitant to spend big money on signings, or rather have tried to sign players and been rejected or beaten to the punch by other sides.

(Of course this seems to be part of a longer-term strategy ensuring they have the financial clout to go after Kylian Mbappé in summer 2021, so let’s keep an eye on that one).

As a result the bulk of their squad is the same as it was when they won their third consecutive Champions League back in 2018. And as a result they have a crippling weakness which was exposed by Shakhtar, just as it was exposed by Manchester City: they miss Sergio Ramos.

Sergio Ramos is a strange character. Phenomenally decorated and a big game killer but honestly if you watch him play as a defender you can poke holes all through his game. He’s often out of position, rash and overcommits into tackles as well.

Yet Los Blancos are utterly lost without him.

Why?

Because he’s a leader, a fighter, The Ultimate Warrior.

Against Shakhtar Donetsk Madrid started the game with a casual sort of dominance, never really pressuring Shakhtar but still obviously better. But then Shakhtar realised Madrid weren’t all that and just absolutely began flying at their illustrious hosts.

And every time they did, every time they ran at their hosts, Madrid looked absolutely petrified. Raphael Varane, usually Madrid’s best defender when everyone is fit, turned to jelly without his captain next to him.

Just as against Manchester City last season, Varane was exposed by an opponent without Ramos around to keep him focus. A usually regal presence was panicked and terrified anytime Shakhtar went near him. Brazilian winger Tete was out there looking like a left-footed Neymar whilst Viktor Kornilenko ravaged the Madrid defence like, well, Marcelo used to do to Madrid’s opponents.

This is thing: Shakhtar scored three goals at the Santiago Bernabeu but they could have honestly scored double that amount. Their counter-attacks were so precise as they ripped their hosts to bit with smart movement into the oceans of space left for them.

Madrid aren’t necessarily more organised when Ramos is on, but with his leadership and mentality, Varane and the other defenders play with more intensity and focus and are able to close out on opponents who are breaking through. Thibaut Courtois turns into a colossus when playing behind Ramos, even though the Spaniard’s positioning always gives him plenty of work to do, it’s work he looks like he can easily do.

And when the Spaniard is playing, you always feel like Los Blancos can come back into any European game.

If Sergio Ramos had been playing against Shakhtar Donetsk, Madrid probably would have still conceded. Maybe not three goals, but they could have gone into half-time trailing.

However does anyone doubt that, had Ramos been on the field, they wouldn’t have roared their way back into the game? They’d have almost certainly gotten the goals that they needed to pick up a win. Ramos probably would have scored one of them, to be honest.

But he wasn’t playing, so they didn’t win. In fact they’ve won just one of the the last eight Champions League games they have played without Sergio Ramos. If he’s missing, they’re vulnerable.

No matter the manager, no matter the opponent, Real Madrid are fully invested in The Cult of Sergio Ramos. When The Ultimate Warrior is there, Los Blancos are a force to be feared. Without him? They’re a laughing stock.