By Ben Hayward | Spanish Football Writer
It was all about Cristiano Ronaldo. Some 45,000 Real Madrid fans donned masks on Wednesday night to pay tribute to the Portuguese, while the ultras at the Santiago Bernabeu called for the Ballon d'Or to be awarded to their star man. But like Lionel Messi for Barcelona the night before, Ronaldo was absent through injury.
Messi's problem is more serious, with the Argentine currently out until next year with a hamstring injury. Ronaldo, though, was forced to sit out when he had hoped to impress one last time as Ballon d'Or voting closed on Friday. The game's two finest footballers have almost always been available over the last few seasons, but suddenly - and coincidentally - they were both missing at the same time.
So how did their teams cope without them?
Both Barca and Madrid have come to depend greatly upon the pair in recent seasons and why wouldn't they? Take the best player out of any team and that side will likely lack something. When that player is one of the world's finest, a void becomes inevitable.
|THE BALLON D'OR CURSE...
|As voting for Fifa and France's Football's prestigious prize closed on Friday, all three of the favourites for the award were sidelined through injury.
Four-time Ballon d'Or winner Lionel Messi flew back to Argentina on Friday to continue his recovery from a hamstring injury which will see him sidelined until 2014.
Meanwhile, France's Franck Ribery cracked ribs on international duty as Les Bleus beat Ukraine to seal a place at next year's World Cup and Bayern boss Pep Guardiola said: "He will be out for a long time."
Cristiano Ronaldo is likely to be back sooner, but what was expected to be just a knock is slightly more serious than first thought and the Portuguese misses a second consecutive match on Saturday. "He is fully recovered," coach Carlo Ancelotti said on Friday. "But we have decided not to take any risks."
To be fair to Barca, Messi is only one of a number of first-team players currently sidelined, with full-backs Adriano, Dani Alves and Jordi Alba all out of the trip to the Dutch capital, along with goalkeeper Victor Valdes and forwards Alexis Sanchez and Cristian Tello.
Nevertheless, it was still a strong side out at the Amsterdam ArenA, with Carles Puyol, Gerard Pique and Javier Mascherano in defence, Xavi and Andres Iniesta in midfield and Cesc Fabregas, Pedro and Neymar further forward.
Pushed back by a high-tempo Ajax team, however, Barca struggled from the outset, found themselves two down at the break and were unable to turn things around despite a fortunate penalty (the foul on Neymar was committed outside the area) and playing the last 41 minutes with an extra man after Joel Veltman's dismissal. With Messi absent, there was very little going on in attack and Neymar - for all his assists and goals against domestic opposition - is yet to net in the Champions League.
So while a Barca team playing against 10 ended up losing for the first time in 2013-14, Madrid without Ronaldo were faced with an uphill struggle as they were reduced to 10 themselves in the home match against Galatasaray on Wednesday. With Ramos red-carded and Cristiano watching on from the stands, the outlook appeared bleak.
But others stepped up. Gareth Bale blasted home a fantastic free-kick, while Alvaro Arbeloa provided improbable inspiration with a goal and an assist for Angel Di Maria and Isco added a quite sublime fourth to ensure a comfortable night (and a 4-1 victory).
Ajax, arguably, are a stronger side than Galatasaray, while Madrid were at home and Barca away, but on the midweek evidence, Real coped better without Ronaldo than the Blaugrana minus Messi. And given that the Argentine will be missing for longer, that is some cause for concern in Catalunya.
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