Sergio Ramos’ passion and drive has long been a double-edged sword for Real Madrid and Spain, and it could end up costing his club in the Champions League and La Liga.
The centre-back made a quick recovery after knee surgery, but pushed things too far for Spain in the international break and is now out again with a calf injury. This new problem will keep him out of the Clasico on April 10 and the Champions League dates with Liverpool either side of it.
Ramos appeared for four minutes at the end of La Roja’s 3-1 win over Kosovo on Wednesday in their World Cup 2022 qualifier, purely to tuck another international appearance under his belt. It was his 180th, and leaves him four short of the all-time record set by Egyptian Ahmed Hassan.
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However, in the warm-down he felt something ping in his calf, and on Thursday he took to Instagram to post an emotional message, explaining he will miss Madrid’s upcoming key clashes.
“What causes me even greater pain is not being able to help the team during these key games in which we will be playing to decide the season and not being able to repay all of you for the love and affection you give me,” Ramos told his followers.
While a calf problem can strike any player at any time, at 35 years old, Ramos must take the utmost care over his minutes and a token appearance at the end of a game was just a needless risk.
Arguably playing any role in these qualifiers was not essential, given he had only just returned from injury and Spain weren't likely to be defensively troubled by their opponents.
Luis Enrique gave him 45 minutes against Greece, left him out against Georgia and then brought him on at the death against Kosovo, treating the skipper gingerly. It showed that all was not well, and yet the Asturian still called on Ramos at the end of the Kosovo game, with no other purpose than to pad his appearance stats.
The coach fielded awkward questions about Ramos all week, going head-to-head with journalists who queried whether he was brought in and out of the team due to injury or form.
Ramos made his Spain debut under Luis Aragones in March 2005, as a right-back, and has since gone on to win the World Cup and two European Championships. He has become a bedrock for club and country, a magnificent, driven leader who will fight without pause for his teams and himself.
In the past that has manifested in a bad disciplinary record, with Ramos no stranger to a red card - with 20 in the top flight, a record, and 26 in all competitions for Madrid. His selfishness - and this is not necessarily a bad thing in football, just ask Cristiano Ronaldo - has also led to Ramos taking Madrid’s penalties after the Portuguese departed.
Although Karim Benzema might seem the more obvious candidate, Ramos backs himself to deliver from the spot. In the Nations League last November, Ramos missed two in one game for Spain, with Yann Sommer denying him both times.
“It would be unfair to criticise Sergio Ramos now," said Luis Enrique at the time. "If there had been three, four or however many penalties, he would have taken them all.”
The former Barcelona coach has backed Ramos strongly since taking over the Spanish national team, perhaps partly to ensure he is seen to be balanced and not biased given his recent past.
However, in this international break Lucho should have left Ramos at home. It made little sense for him to play half the game against Greece, something the coach and the Seville-born defender “agreed in advance”. It’s surprising that a coach known for being tough has acquiesced to Ramos’ desires to add to his caps tally.
Zinedine Zidane and Real Madrid are the ones who will pay the consequences. Indeed, given Ramos' contract stand-off, he might never play another Champions League game or Clasico for Madrid again. The coach, shorn of his captain for the upcoming big games, might shy away from his 3-5-2 formation which he has been working on in recent weeks.
Ramos, Raphael Varane and Nacho work well as a defensive trio but Eder Militao’s form has been far shakier this term, and Zidane won’t want to use the Brazilian against Liverpool or Barcelona. Instead he may have to revert to his classic 4-3-3, pairing Nacho with Varane in defence, provided Dani Carvajal is fit to play at right back.
Madrid were also without Ramos against Ajax and Manchester City in their eliminations in the previous two editions of the Champions League, showing how crucial he is on the big stage for them.
Ramos’ decisive and devious foul on Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah helped Madrid win the 2018 Champions League final in Kiev. Now the Egyptian may wreak his revenge on a defence - not always the most stable at the best of times - missing its captain and leader.
Ramos’ relentless personality makes him the player he is, an admired club legend, but even his most ardent fans have to admit that once again it has got the better of him.