Casemiro couldn’t look but pretty much everyone else could see. Crouched right on the centre spot, the Real Madrid midfielder turned his back and brought his hands to his face. To the left, Éder Militão stood by him, gently laying a hand on his shoulder. Fifty metres away Athletic’s Iker Muniain was pacing, blood boiling. “Explain it, then,” he was demanding. “Always the effing same. Not even you lot can understand it.” And to the left of him Sergio Ramos was waiting to take a penalty, blood running cold. He was 12 yards from goal or “11 metres closer to the title” as Marca put it, which was easy to say afterwards.
Easy to say at the time too, at least for some. There were 17 minutes remaining, a little over four games left at the end of the longest season, and it was 0-0 at the ground they call the Cathedral – the last great obstacle between Madrid and the league. There was a lot at stake but if Casemiro was nervous, he needn’t have been. There was silence, the place not the same when the only spectator is the bust of Pichichi. And Ramos had been here before: only Paco Gento had won more times at San Mamés, and not for long, while these moments and this spot had become his.
Inked on Ramos’s ribs is the phrase “I am the master of my own destiny”. He was master of theirs too, and who better? Asked on Sunday what he thinks about when he’s waiting to take a penalty, he replied: “Just the three points.” He added: “Those moments of most uncertainty are when I feel most comfortable; I’m the right person for it, delighted to do it.” If the first part wasn’t entirely true, the second definitely was.
When he sent a penalty miles over the bar against Bayern Munich in the Champions League semi-final in 2012, denying Madrid a place in the final back when the obsession over their 10th European Cup asphyxiated them, Ramos told his brother Rene that next time he would show them; next time he would dink it in, that would shut them up. So he did – in the semi-final of the Euros, two months later. I must say, captain, I’ve got to admire your balls.
Perhaps later. He has taken a lot of penalties since and a lot have been Panenkas. Since Cristiano Ronaldo left, he has taken almost all of them. At first that might have felt a little indulgent, but no more. Ramos said dinking it is “logical” looked at coldly and him taking penalties just seems intelligent now, an act of efficiency. Last Thursday, he scored the 79th-minute spot kick that defeated Getafe 1-0, his 19th in a row – plus two more in shoot-outs – going back more than two years. He had scored against Croatia, Norway, Sweden and Romania; Sevilla, Galatasaray, Eibar, Real Sociedad, Valladolid and Getafe, twice against Atlético, Celta and Girona, three times against Leganés. Now he had another against Athletic.
As the ball went in Ramos ran off, pulling at the Madrid badge and shouting. Most of his teammates ran towards him but Casemiro didn’t. Hearing the ball hit the net, he slipped to his knees, alone, covered his face and prayed.
He knew what this meant. Madrid were about to go seven points clear and although Barcelona would reduce that to four with a 4-1 win at Villarreal, Quique Setién admitted: “This was a performance we needed before.” Now what they need is a miracle. “In the bag”, ran AS’s headline. For once, it didn’t seem particularly premature. Madrid have four games left – Alavés (h), Granada (a), Villarreal (h), Leganés (a) – and a four-point lead, plus head-to-head advantage. They can afford to drop points twice. They’ve dropped none since lockdown, when Ramos learnt to play the piano and grew a beard you could hide a hamster in. They have won seven games in a row – and that, Zinedine Zidane said, “is no small thing.”
This would be only Madrid’s third title in 12 years. In that time, they have won four European Cups. And here’s a tempting theory, tentatively offered: when the league became a Champions League, they went and won it; when the season turned into a new tournament, self-contained and (re)starting in the summer: shorter, compact, and packed into a few short weeks, the reward is right there. Eleven “finals” Ramos called them, and while that’s usually an empty cliche, this time it felt meaningful. More their thing. The schedule relentless, no time to think. Just win. Just. Get. Through.
They had to be close enough, of course. In previous years, the league had already ended by March. This season, Madrid had lost just three times before lockdown and had gone unbeaten between October and February. There is a reason they have a better head-to-head record. A clásico win and draw secured pre-pandemic symbolised a shift – even if, beaten by Betis just before everything stopped, they also needed Barcelona to slip up. Once would do; three times plus a boardroom a crisis was a bonus.
And yet there’s something about the restart that recalls the Champions League where Madrid have been so dominant, offering something immediate and tangible to cling on to, the finish line within sight, no margin for error. As if they like life on the edge – Russian roulette focussing the mind, making them who they are.
Madrid have won all seven games since the return. It hasn’t always been sparkling – although they were excellent in the second half against Valencia – and on Sunday night the focus was on the referees again, Barcelona’s president Josep Maria Bartomeu finding a place to hide in complaints that VAR decisions since the restart have not been “equal” and that “the same team is always benefitted.”
Madrid went top with a win in San Sebastián where they were awarded a penalty when Vinícius went down, scored the winner after Karim Benzema controlled the ball with his shoulder/arm and where Real Sociedad had an Adnan Januzaj goal ruled out for offside against Mikel Merino. Against Valencia, Rodrigo Moreno’s opening goal had been ruled out for another offside. And against Athletic on Sunday, Madrid were given a penalty when Dani García trod on and tripped Marcelo, while Athletic weren’t when Ramos accidentally trod on Raúl García. Iñaki Williams was not impressed. Nor was Munian. “We’re seeing what’s happening in recent weeks, which team the decisions are going in favour of,” he said.
“I’m tired of it, it seems like we’re always talking about the same thing,” Zidane said. “It seems like we only win thanks to the referees; Madrid deserve respect.” Ramos insisted: “We’re not going to win the league because of the referees: those who have made mistakes should be self-critical, look at their players.” He had a point.
Madrid have won seven in a row, kept four consecutive clean sheets and not even trailed yet. There’s been a sense of mission and certainty, almost an inevitability, that recalls some of those European successes. There is a depth to the squad, a variety of talent no one can match, and there’s also solidity and a seriousness about them, an awareness that it only takes a moment and that moment will come. That when it does, they’ll take it. Whether that’s a flash of inspiration from Benzema, a run from VinÍcius, Toni Kroos side-footing in a 20-yard shot with ridiculous ease, or Casemiro, their most consistent player, suddenly appearing in the six-yard box.
And then there’s Captain Clutch, in his element, which by extension is theirs too. Sergio Ramos embodies the Real Madrid mindset better than anyone, the man with the habit of appearing as the season reaches a climax, occasionally absent in the autumn but superb by the spring, driven by the destiny right before him. The man who prefers the pressure to be on. An almost cartoonish character, all red cards and redemption, with a feel for moments that matter, the stage that awaits. The finals, the photos, the Ramos Time: 92.48 and all that.
All this, too. Not so dramatic, but not so different either. That run of penalties starts in May 2018 with an 89th-minute winner against Sevilla, his former club. Of the 20 spot kicks, 14 changed the result. The last three, in three weeks against Real Sociedad, Getafe and Athletic, changed the destination of a unique league, the longest title race ever and the shortest too. “The Covid league,” Ramos called it, as if it was a whole new competition, which it kind of feels like. It also feels like it will be his. Since the football returned, no one in Spain has scored more goals. When the latest penalty was given Casemiro couldn’t look, all too aware what this meant, but the man taking it was aware too, which is why everyone else knew. Put Sergio Ramos on the spot, and only one thing is going to happen.