When Real Madrid slumped to a 3-0 defeat against CSKA Moscow in their last Champions League group game in December they looked far removed from the defending champions, let alone like the side that had just won the competition for the third straight time.
It compounded a woeful few months for the club as coach Julen Lopetegui came and went before former player Santiago Solari replaced him in November. They sat sixth in La Liga and appeared a team in decline, sorely missing forward Cristiano Ronaldo, who left for Juventus last summer.
But fast-forward to February and all of a sudden Real look like they could once again be the team to beat in Europe this year. Rejuvenated and unbeaten in the league since early January, they head into Wednesday’s game with Ajax full of confidence having climbed to second in La Liga, five points off top spot.
While many will point to the impact teenager Vinicius Junior has had on the team going forwards, it is invariably the leadership of captain and centre back Sergio Ramos that has helped get Real back on track.
Few would have imagined how much of an impact a skinny long-haired teenager from Andalusia would go on to have in Madrid after joining for 27 million euros ($30 million) in 2005. The fee remains a record for a Spanish teenager to this day, and few would dispute that he has been worth the investment.
Should he, as expected, lead his side out against Ajax in what will be his 600th appearance, he will move just one game behind club legends Fernando Hierro and Paco Gento in the all-time appearance list at Madrid, and fourth behind Manolo Sanchis (710), Iker Casillas (725) and Raul Gonzalez (741).
A relentless winning machine, Ramos has lifted 20 trophies since making his debut for the club in September 2005. Initially a marauding full-back, he moved into central defence under Jose Mourinho in 2010, making the position his own despite a revolving door of partners at the back.
Now captain for both club and country, Ramos is looking to help Real to their fourth consecutive Champions League crown. “He has been and remains a fantastic captain,” coach Solari said of the 32-year-old. “I think it’s brilliant how he carries out his job as leader, which isn’t an easy one.”
Despite being a defender by trade, Ramos is most revered in the Spanish capital for his dramatic last-gasp headed equaliser against city rivals Atletico in the 2014 Champions League final. It is a goal that is played before every home game on the big screens at the Bernabeu, much to the crowd’s delight, and he also scored in the 2016 Champions League final.
Indeed, Ramos has become something of a specialist in front of goal, with 11 strikes in all competitions this season. No defender has ever scored in three Champions League or European Cup finals, but with Real looking back at their brilliant best, you would not put it past Ramos to create yet another piece of history come the end of the season. ($1 = 0.8855 euros).