Minus Cristiano Ronaldo's goals, Real Madrid will need luck to retain Champions League
Champions have shown their brittle nature in recent weeks and why they may get past Ajax in the last 16 getting further could prove a challenge
At times in the last five and half years, Real Madrid have led a charmed life in their favourite tournament.
No team ever dominates any competition over a long period without some luck, and at key moments in their journey to four European Cup triumphs since 2014, Madrid have had luck and exploited it.
Now they feel they may really need it again, even as early as Tuesday night, where they meet Ajax at the Bernabeu with a 2-1 advantage from the home leg but with nothing resembling form or authority to fortify them.
Madrid have lost their last three home games, with the latest two defeats, both to Barcelona, effectively depriving them of any prospect of a domestic trophy this season, and leaving them feeling unusually barren.
Madrid may be in the last 16 of the Uefa Champions League, as ever, but they are not among the top 16 most potent teams from across the strongest leagues in Europe.
The first season of their life after Cristiano Ronaldo, who joined Juventus last summer after nine years as Real's finisher-in-chief, has turned out to be as great a challenge as many wise forecasters predicted.
The wisest of all Zinedine Zidane, who stepped down as manager almost immediately after overseeing his third Champions League final success.
Perhaps Zidane foresaw that Madrid would become barely half as effective in front of goal without Ronaldo. The stats are startling. In La Liga, Madrid with Ronaldo tended to have reached on average 70 goals for the campaign at this stage. They currently have 43.
"We need to be more sure of ourselves in front of goal," said Santi Solari, the interim coach after Saturday's 1-0 loss in the league to Barcelona.
He had said almost exactly the same three days earlier, after Barcelona put Madrid out of the Copa del Rey.
There is no shortage of possession in Madrid's play, nor of technical excellence, with Vinicius Junior having added some youthful zest on the left flank to Karim Benzema's intelligence and industry around the penalty box, and Luka Modric's careful use of the ball in midfield. What they lack is a predator.
For all that Modric, who deposed Ronaldo as holder of the Ballon d'Or last year, remains the heart of a Madrid that will be remembered long into their future for their serial European Cups, he is not the man to compensate for Ronaldo’s absence.
When Modric planted a header over then Barcelona bar, having had a snapshot volley saved moments earlier, a collective sigh wheezed around the Bernabeu, the realisation that the admired Modric was taking responsibilities that needed taking but that goalscoring has never been a principle part of his game.
In this brittle Madrid, working with their third different head coach in nine months, there is a leadership gap, too.
Modric leads by example, all endeavour and vision, but he is not an ostentatious fist-pumper. Karim Benzema, a decade a Madrid player, is not that type either.
Marcelo, meanwhile, a totemic figure and perhaps the world's most dynamic and influential attacking left-back for much of the last five year, has a waning impact, no longer deemed certain of his place in the starting XI.
As for the captain, Sergio Ramos is certainly the fist-pumping, battle-cry sort, often to an exaggerated degree, but as Madrid approach a testing phase in the defence of the European title, they will have to do without him.
The skipper is suspended on Tuesday and for the first leg of a quarter-final, should Madrid reach it, his punishment - subject to appeal - for having deliberately, in Uefa's view, looked for a yellow card so he could serve a ban for accumulated bookings now and not later in the tournament.
Ramos may have felt he was doing the responsible thing by his team in acting like that. He was probably ill-advised to be so blatant about deliberately looking for a yellow card.
He has a cynical streak - not the least of Madrid's pieces of luck in their capturing so many European titles was that Ramos escaped punishment in last season's final when his manhandling of Mohamed Salah left Liverpool without their best goalscorer, his shoulder injured by Ramos, for most of the game.
Madrid had some luck in their first leg against a vibrant Ajax, too, VAR ruling a marginal decision on an Ajax offside goal in Madrid's favour.
The champions may need more of that luck this evening.
Updated: March 5, 2019 08:08 AM