Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 June 2019

Real Madrid's Champions League capitulation was no surprise. It felt inevitable

A 4-1 defeat at home to an exciting Ajax full of energy and incision highlighted the deficiencies in Solari's ageing team of champions

This time last week Real Madrid harboured hopes of reaching the Copa del Rey final, taking a chunk out of Barcelona's lead at the top of Primera Liga and winning a fourth Uefa Champions League on the trot and a fifth in six years.

Today they wake up to the grim reality that dreams can soon turn into nightmares.

Hammered at home 3-0 by Barcelona in the second leg of their Copa semi-final last Wednesday, the Catalans returned to the Bernabeu three days later to kill Madrid's feint title hopes, Ivan Rakitic's delightfully dinked goal rubbing salt into the open wounds for good measure.

Then came Tuesday's Champions League capitulation to Ajax. Defeats to Barcelona sting but are not uncommon anymore. Saturday's clasico victory was Barca's third on the spin at the home of their greatest rivals, a feat never before accomplished, and their 11th in 18 visits to the Bernabeu over the past decade. Defeat to Ajax, a team whose own association with the European Cup is steeped in history on the back of four title triumphs but none since 1995, will have sharpened the minds of club president Florentino Perez and the Real Madrid directors that theirs is a club in crisis.

The manner of their exits from all three competitions is likely to result in manager Santiago Solari being relieved of his duties but deeper introspection is needed of a squad that, although packed with the highest quality and serial trophy collectors, looks in need of a dramatic overhaul.

Not only was Ajax's 4-1 victory, courtesy of goals from Hakim Ziyech, David Neres, Dusan Tadic and a screamer from Lasse Schone, deserved but it felt inevitable. The warning signs were there for all to see in Amsterdam during the first leg. If anything the Dutch side arrived in the Spanish capital unlucky to be trailing the 13-time champions of Europe 2-1.

Speed, incision, precision, energy and drive - Ajax were everything Real Madrid were not. Toni Kroos' dip in form since winning a third straight Champions League last June is the most alarming of any Madrid player but by no means an isolated case. Sergio Ramos, Marcelo, Casemiro and even world player of the year Luka Modric all look to be labouring under the weight of a trying to save a sinking ship.

Real Madrid's Croatian midfielder Luka Modric reacts during the UEFA Champions League round of 16 second leg football match between Real Madrid CF and Ajax at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium in Madrid on March 5, 2019. / AFP / GABRIEL BOUYS
Real Madrid midfielder Luka Modric, much like the rest of his teammates, struggled to contain Ajax. AFP

It was Kroos who was caught in possession from a throw-in that saw Tadic, superb all night, saunter with the ball into the Madrid area before teeing up his equally impressive teammate Ziyech after only seven minutes.

It's hard to know where to begin the post-mortem for the concession of the second goal. Centre-backs Raphael Varane and Nacho Fernandez, in for the suspended Sergio Ramos, whose decision to take a deliberate booking in the first leg to leave him free for the quarter-finals looks a touch silly now, dropped 10 yards off the rest of their defensive line when holding it seemed the more logical.

A Tadic turn left Casemiro chasing shadows that was reminiscent of Modric in his pomp that seems further and further away each passing week. Modric looked behind for a covering teammate when he belatedly noticed Neres ghosting in from the left flank to put Ajax 2-0 up. Modric could argue Dani Carvajal should have picked him up; the cold hard truth is that the Croatian just wasn't alert enough to the danger.

The skill on the ball of Ajax's creative players will have left the Bernabeu crowd green with envy. Tadic's turn to leave Casemiro for dead in the build up for the second goal was dreamy and the sight of Modric on his backside after being sidestepped by Barcelona-bound Frenkie de Jong will have drawn a few laughs in Catalunya.

Neres should have made it 3-0 when Ajax found themselves three on one against Carvajal but the Brazilian chipped wide. Thibaut Courtois was forced to save from Tadic and Ziyech, the Belgian goalkeeper Madrid's King Canute trying to hold back the Ajax tide.

When Lucas Vazquez and Vinicius Junior both departed within minutes of each other any hope Madrid had went with it.

Quite why the fans have never taken to Gareth Bale, the latter's replacement, is a mystery to this writer. Why does it matter whether he speaks the language? Do Real Madrid fans want to pick the Welshman's brains on the pros and cons of Brexit? So what if he isn't Marty the Party and not signing up for paintball and go-karting on team bonding sessions? History is filled with players in teams who didn't get along outside of work but did the business on the pitch.

While Bale's form has unquestionably slipped, booing and jeering a player who has scored over 100 goals for the club, won four Champions League medals, scoring in two finals including a memorable overhead kick against Liverpool in last year's showpiece, is something perhaps only Madridistas can fathom.

Save for December's Fifa Club World Cup, Real Madrid will end the season without a major domestic or European trophy for the first time since 2015. Tuesday's performance felt like familiarity among Madrid's squad of champions had bred contempt.

By the time Tadic put Ajax 3-0 up Solari cut an impotent figure on the touchline, unable to rally his troops. And while Marco Asensio's strike offered a slither of hope it was left to the economical Schone, a man whose Modus Operandi is to pass the ball no further than 10 yards at every opportunity, to rifle home a free kick that left Madrid battered, bruised and beaten and in need of being rebuilt.

Updated: March 6, 2019 02:47 PM

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