If Real Madrid’s mission was to extinguish the fire at the Neapolitan cauldron that is the Stadio San Paolo, then Sergio Ramos was station officer. The reigning champions’ 3-1 victory on Tuesday may have mirrored the first-leg scoreline, however the contrast between the two matches was vast.
This time, in front of their fans, Napoli had Madrid on the round of 16 ropes. More than good value for their 1-0 interval lead, Maurizio Sarri’s side sensed an upset was on the cards. But once more, and with his team under the cosh and in need of a hero, Ramos put out the flames.
“It’s amazing that he has given us so much,” Madrid director Emilio Butragueño said afterwards. “It is in these kinds of games that players build their legacies and it is absolutely extraordinary that a centre-back is such a decisive figure.”
Indeed, in his 12th season since joining the Merengues from Sevilla, the 30-year-old has continually proven himself to be much more than just a centre-back (or deputy right-back).
The latest body of evidence came with Madrid’s attack misfiring, their midfield overrun, and Napoli duly smelling blood. “We were suffering,” Ramos elaborated. Yet the captain fantastic rose to the occasion – as per usual – and promptly marked his 100th UEFA club competition appearance for Real with another decisive contribution at the other end of the pitch.
After 52 minutes he soared above the home defence to nod in the equaliser. Five minutes later he then had a header inadvertently deflected past goalkeeper Pepe Reina by Dries Mertens. Fortunes were reversed in barely the blink of an eye and Madrid were now heading – quite literally – into the last eight.
Madrid’s man of the match spoke to UEFA.com
His strike, described by Butragueño as “the game changer”, was Ramos’s 11th in Europe for the Blancos and his seventh with his head. And if his record of better than one goal every ten games wasn’t impressive enough for a centre-half, then consider where those goals came.
Not only will he forever be synonymous with the stoppage-time goal that took the 2014 UEFA Champions League final to extra time, it was his double in the semi-final second leg at Bayern that helped seal his team’s place in Lisbon. Then last May in Milan, again against Atlético, it was Ramos who opened the scoring as Madrid won their eleventh crown.
Another late header, against Sevilla in August’s UEFA Super Cup in Trondheim, forced overtime, while on Tuesday he added Naples to his list of memorable European nights.
“It’s a game to reflect on, above all the first half,” Ramos mused. “But I’m happy we’ve got through and now we need to look back at what we did wrong.”
Madrid may well brood over what they can do differently. However, they will also know that with the No4 in their ranks and doing the business in both areas, they have every chance of becoming the first club to retain the trophy in the competition’s current format.