In a season that has lurched from one disaster to the next, this was by far Real Madrid’s lowest point.
A 5-1 humbling at Camp Nou. Home defeats to Girona, Real Sociedad and CSKA Moscow. Losing 3-0 to Eibar and Sevilla. Being beaten twice in four days on home turf by Barcelona. Who would have thought Madrid’s season could get any lower?
Ajax made sure they plumbed new depths in spectacular fashion. Until this week, Madrid had not lost three consecutive home games at the Bernabéu since 2003. Ajax just made it four. As the Dutch side’s fourth goal went flying in, extinguishing the brief hope of a Madrid comeback, you felt like Santi Solari wanted to walk down the tunnel and out of the stadium there and then. He is a manager hopelessly out of his depth, but he has been badly let down by an underperforming squad.
That starts with his captain Sergio Ramos, missing through suspension after deliberately picking up a booking in the first leg to avoid getting a suspension in the next round. It was an astonishing act of hubris, as though passage through to the next round was a fait accompli.
Luka Modric, Toni Kroos, Gareth Bale. They are by no means the only culprits, but players of their undoubted quality and standing in the game have fallen well below their usual standards.
Amid all their domestic struggles, there was always the lingering hope that Madrid would bail themselves out in Europe, just as they masked a sub-par La Liga campaign with European success last season.
For the last few years, they have paradoxically been the best team in Europe, while not even being the best team in Spain. There is no doubt that European success has papered over some pretty serious cracks at the club. The writing has been on the wall for a while now – their poor performance in the league last season wasn’t a blip, but symptomatic of a club in decline.
Winning the Champions League allowed them to conveniently forget to arrest the problems at the club: aging stars, poor morale, too many egos, no structure to the way they play (which has been particularly evident since the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo).
But expecting it to happen again was a stretch too far.
The twin loss of Ronaldo and Zinedine Zidane at the end of last season was always going to be difficult to overcome, but club president Florentino Pérez somehow didn’t see it being a huge problem.
He is guilty of the same kind of hubris displayed by Ramos. A failure to make any meaningful attempt to replace Ronaldo was unbelievably short-sighted. The Portuguese had dragged them through, time and again, picking up late goals to win games through his deadly combination of unique talent and force of personality.
“After what he did for this club, we miss Cristiano,” were the words of Luka Modric before the second leg. No shit. It’s just a shame his president didn’t see it that way in the summer.
Now the inquest begins. What happens next? Solari may well pay for it with his job, but this is no quick fix.
José Mourinho has been linked with a return to the club, but will that help? He may be able to solidify the squad in the short term, but the damage has already been done. There is now no hope of them picking up any silverware this season.
The problems with the club run far deeper than the manager. Pérez is the root of the problem, stemming from his failure to manage the departures of Zidane and Ronaldo and recognise that the time was right for a change of direction in terms of the squad make-up.
Now they have had their moment of catharsis. A humbling at home against Ajax, in the very competition they call their own. Pérez now has to wake up and recognise that changes need to be made to the management team, the squad and on the board.
Their success in Europe over the last few seasons has hidden deeper issues from view, but there is nothing to hide behind any more. The club has been drifting for far longer than it seemed, and this might just be the slap in the face they needed to be able to begin to find their way back.