The defining image of Saturday’s Clasico saw Lionel Messi left in a heap on the deck and Sergio Ramos striding forward with the ball at his feet.
In the final minute of the match Barcelona’s captain was in full flight, wriggling towards goal. It seemed, for a split second, as though he had beaten Madrid’s skipper, only for Ramos to throw out his trailing leg, pinch possession and charge forward in search of another goal.
Ramos’ rather less buccaneering colleagues halted his raid and swiftly recycled the ball. As their captain reluctantly returned to his berth at the heart of defence, three sharp parps of the referee’s whistle confirmed all three points were travelling back to the capital and Real Madrid avoided three consecutive defeats.
While Zinedine Zidane has amassed enough good will to ride out almost any run of uninspiring form at Madrid, winning 3-1 at the home of your most bitter rivals will have come as a wholeheartedly welcome result. Yet, as Shakhtar Donetsk effortlessly played through Madrid’s bamboozled Blancos in midweek, quelling the likes of Messi and co seemed fanciful at best.
However, while Shakhtar’s 3-2 win will scarcely be mentioned without the caveat that the Ukrainian champions were missing at least a dozen first team players, Madrid had a significant absentee of their own.
With Ramos rested on the sidelines with Saturday’s Clasico in mind, Madrid were painfully passive in the face of Shakhtar’s patient passing patterns. Two of the visitors’ three goals came after moves of 20 passes or more and – bearing in mind the threat of overemphasising Ramos’ value in his absence – it’s hard to imagine the famously combative captain would have allowed such sequences to go on unbroken, by fair means or foul.
Wednesday night was the seventh Champions League defeat Madrid have suffered in the previous eight games Ramos has missed in the competition.
Back in the side at Camp Nou, Ramos demonstrated the defensive resolve he brings to Madrid – no player finished the match with more interceptions than the Spain international and only two could boast more tackles. Raphaël Varane – with Ramos back alongside him at centre-back – enjoyed a refreshing return to his familiar imperious form after a week to forget for the French World Cup winner.
Yet, for a centre-back who admits he gets a bit ‘bored’ hanging back, Ramos lived up to his self-description as a player with a ‘striker’s soul’. Remarkably, no Madrid player fired off more shots on the afternoon than their swashbuckling skipper.
Along with an obligatory pair of headers from corners which didn’t beat Barcelona’s Neto, Ramos – giving in to his innate demands and lurking at the back post – had a crisply hit left-footed volley blocked off the line by Neto’s boot.
The 34-year-old would find the net in the 62nd minute from a penalty his extravagant tumble won. With the score at 1-1, Ramos coolly converted, taking his remarkable record to 18 consecutive successful conversions for Real Madrid.
In scoring effectively the game-winning goal of his 45th Clasico appearance – a larger tally than any other player in the illustrious history of this grand old fixture – Ramos provided just the latest example of how he thrives in these brutally pressurised moments.
Saturday’s spot kick was the sixth penalty in a row Ramos has taken (and scored) to put Real Madrid into the lead. In the midst of this run stretching back to February, Ramos described what, for mere mortals, is meant to be the nerve-jangling wait before a penalty, saying: “Those moments of most uncertainty are when I feel most comfortable; I’m the right person for it, delighted to do it.”
That he certainly is. In Cristiano Ronaldo’s absence Karim Benzema has taken up some of the goalscoring obligations but Ramos has carried the weight of bailing out his side in crucial moments even when the Portuguese forward was around. Back in October 2017, Zidane was forthright in his insistence that Ramos was ‘the most important player on the team’.
Three years on, his significance has only grown.