Real Madrid's charge to the top orchestrated by Sergio Ramos from the back
Captain has intervened at decisive moments since restart to all but secure La Liga title
It is a rare day, during Real Madrid’s procession towards a probable 34th Liga title, when Sergio Ramos is not on the scoresheet.
But just in case there was any doubt that this most free-scoring of central defenders and domineering of captains was anything less than essential, he intervened decisively again on Monday to ensure his club moved another three points closer to their coronation.
At Granada, Madrid won 2-1, which means they go into the last two fixtures with a four-point lead over Barcelona and with a head-to-head advantage over their chasers that means two draws would now guarantee them the title. A goal-line clearance from Ramos kept them in front at Granada, who had energetically worn away at the 2-0 lead Madrid established by half-time.
“We won the first half, and we lost the second half,” admitted Ramos, “and that is something we should look at.” Thus his stern warning against complacency now that the finish line is in sight and winning – nine victories out of nine since the June restart – almost seems routine.
It is never an extravagant routine. Assuming Madrid, who were behind Barca when football was suspended in March, maintain their position they will be the champions not of swagger but of stealth and resourcefulness.
If that sounds a peculiar description of a squad that includes a trio of attacking players who were each bought for more than €75m (Dh313m), it should be noted that none of that trio – Eden Hazard, Gareth Bale and James Rodriguez – have greatly shaped the run-in.
It is the back end of the team that has starred. Thibaut Courtois, the goalkeeper, made another superb save at 2-1 up against Granada, and he will very likely end the campaign as the guardian of the best defensive record in La Liga.
Those immediately in front of him have contributed at the other end, too. Ferland Mendy, the left-back, registered his first Madrid goal at Granada to become the 21st different Real player to have scored in the league this season.
Centre-half Rafa Varane has equalled his best total of goals for a league season, while the versatile understudy Nacho and the right-back Dani Carvajal have scored match-winning goals. Casemiro, the anchor midfielder, has scored as many times as Hazard – who has been injured for long periods – Bale and James combined.
And then there’s Ramos. His sixth goal of the league campaign put Madrid 2-0 up against Eibar on their first fixture back after the pause, on the way to a 3-1 win.
His seventh, from the penalty spot, broke the deadlock in what would be a 2-1 win at Real Sociedad. His eighth would remind that, while he has turned into quite the expert from the penalty spot, his dead-ball talents extend beyond 11 metres. Against Real Mallorca, a Ramos free-kick allowed Madrid to breathe easy, at 2-0 up.
Madrid then won their next three matches 1-0, a Ramos penalty clinching the points against each of Getafe and Athletic Bilbao. A cynic might argue that the pressure on a penalty-taker in a stadium with no supporters is reduced. But it still takes a cool head and a clear mind to keep scoring them when you know the outcome of the league title may very well depend on it.
And if, behind-closed-doors, there were no opposition fans whistling him, Ramos knew sections of the media would turn shriller and shriller about the fact that so many crucial points have gone to Madrid via penalties. Barcelona have complained long and loud about VAR decisions these last few weeks, but none of Madrid's spot-kick awards can really be viewed as dubious.
Being Ramos, he did collect a suspension during the run-in, and so he had to watch Karim Benzema take over penalty-taking duty in the 2-0 win over Alaves.
Only Benzema has outscored the captain for Madrid this term. Ramos is now on double-figures for Liga goals, his 10 a best-ever in this, his 15th season at Real. He needs another four to reach his 100th goal for Madrid, across competitions.
And, since Ramos has also been sent off more than anybody in Spain, there's another notable milestone within reach. Ramos needs to get through 180 more minutes in order to finish the whole Liga campaign without a red card. That has only ever happened once before in his long Madrid career.
Ramos turned 34 in late March, when the Covid-19 crisis was at its most alarming across Spain, and when the likelihood of La Liga being completed looked remote.
“The period of confinement gave us an opportunity to reflect,” he said on Monday, “and to reposition ourselves.” The captain made sure his position would be right in the foreground.
Published: July 15, 2020 07:09 AM