Sergio Ramos of Real Madrid reacts after conceding a second goal during the UEFA Champions League second leg semi-final football match between Chelsea and Real Madrid on May 5, 2021 at Stamford Bridge in London. Chelsea won the game by a score of 2-0. AFP / Glyn KIRK
Real Madrid were not only defeated, but outplayed by Chelsea on Wednesday, signalling the end of an era for a squad that has endured but can no longer compete with the best in Europe.
Real Madrid can be under no illusions after a remarkable run that has seen Zinedine Zidane’s grandees win three consecutive Champions League titles and four in eight years.
This is the third year in a row that they have failed to reach the final, and the second time in a row that they have met elite English opposition and come up short.
“Chelsea was the better team,” midfielder Casemiro said. “There are no excuses.”
Madrid were thrashed by Manchester City in the round of 16 last season, and although the 3-1 aggregate score against Chelsea made the tie seem competitive, they were lucky to avoid a thrashing.
If Chelsea had been less reckless with the string of golden opportunities they produced, the second leg could have been comparable to Barcelona’s humiliation by Bayern Munich.
Last season’s 8-2 defeat in Lisbon jolted Barcelona into a difficult transition that necessitated controversial decisions regarding some of the club’s key players.
Madrid, on the other hand, has resisted reform, with Zidane preferring to harvest every last ounce of wisdom, character, and class from his trusted lieutenants before looking to the future.
It has also succeeded, with the club overcoming a year without a single signing, following another in which they invested 100 million euros on Eden Hazard, money that now seems to have been entirely squandered.
Zidane resurrected and cajoled the old spine of Sergio Ramos, Luka Modric, Toni Kroos, Casemiro, and Karim Benzema to reset and win again in the absence of signings and, to a lesser extent, Hazard.
They won La Liga last season, and if they beat Sevilla on Sunday, they will be favourites to do so again, putting Zidane on the verge of his third La Liga title in four full seasons in charge.
That would be a huge accomplishment with a weakened squad that has been devastated all season by injuries and is now exhausted by exhaustion.
Real’s lowered status
This Real Madrid era will be remembered as one of the best of all time, with a winning attitude that was not only an advantage but a defining characteristic.
However, the amount necessary to win in Spain tends to be considerably lower than that required in Europe, where PSG was too strong for Barcelona and Chelsea has proven to be superior to both Real and Atletico Madrid.
It is difficult to imagine a different outcome if either of La Liga’s top three had faced either Bayern or City.
Madrid’s diminished prestige is not lost on the club’s president Florentino Perez, whose desire for a European Super League is motivated in part by a desire to keep the gap from widening.
Perez stated that without the millions on offer from the breakaway, Madrid would be unable to afford the likes of Kylian Mbappe this summer, the type of statement signing that can kickstart a new cycle in a single fell swoop.
However, there is a move that may be slower and smarter, and it does not entail buying just the best players in the world at the highest possible price.
Sergio Ramos and Luka Modric are both out of contract this summer, with Ramos’ future in particular doubt.
However, it is Zidane’s position that could now come into sharp focus, not so much because of his established skills with this current squad, but because of his suitability for ushering in a new one.
Some club officials have been irritated by Zidane’s unwillingness to develop young players.
Martin Odegaard was benched and allowed to leave, while Fede Valverde has given way to the usual midfield trio, and Vinicius Junior and Rodrygo have only delivered in spurts.
Zidane’s contract expires in 2022, but he has consistently declined to answer questions about his future.
“I don’t schedule anything, I don’t think past the day to day,” he said in February.
The French national team is frequently mentioned as a natural next move, particularly given his lack of interest in a long managerial career. He has also left the door open for a return to Juventus.
But if he stays another year, even Zidane, whose devotion to these players has been both a cause and a result of their success, will come to believe that change is now necessary.