After 40 matches, Real Madrid’s unbeaten run ended in five minutes of drama
A late own goal from Sergio Ramos against his old club sparked a Sevilla comeback
Real Madrid’s Sergio Ramos celebrates in front of the Sevilla fans. Photo: Cristina Quicler/Getty Images
Zinedine Zidane smiled that smile, the one that has served him so well. What had his team lacked, he was asked; what was it they had needed? “Five minutes,” he said gently. Not long, but long enough to change everything. No one had beaten Real Madrid in 40 matches, going back nine months, 30 teams and five competitions, but Sevilla beat them in five minutes. “We knew that this would happen one day,” Zidane said. He just didn’t expect it to happen like this; by 10.30pm on Sunday, he didn’t expect it to happen at all. No one did. But then, suddenly, there was bedlam and, before they knew it, Sevilla’s players were standing before their fans, celebrating a huge victory that Madrid had thought was theirs.
There’s a line in Sevilla’s anthem, belted out before games and plastered on billboards round their Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán stadium, that says in huge white letters on a red background: “it’s said they never give up”, and afterwards their manager, Jorge Sampaoli, insisted that the key to their 2-1 win against Madrid was that they “never lowered our arms”. This season that’s true, too: if this season’s league games had ended in the 85th minute, they would be 13 points and six places worse off. And yet on 85 minutes, you wondered if they finally had, if this time they really were beaten. If Madrid, unbeaten since April, somehow unbeaten just four days before in this very arena, really were invincible.
Sevilla faced Madrid for the third time in 10 days and it was happening again. Beaten 3-0 at the Bernabéu in the Copa del Rey last 16 first leg, they’d been winning 3-1 with seven minutes left in the return leg, believing that, wow, they could actually do this, only for a penalty and Karim Benzema’s 93rd-minute equaliser to secure Madrid’s 40th consecutive unbeaten game and a new Spanish record. Now, first vs second in the league, Sevilla were losing 1-0 and time, like the energy in their legs, was escaping them. It felt over. It probably would have been but for Sergio Ramos, that one man story-generating machine.
As Sevilla’s players left the Lebreros hotel and their bus made its way to the Sánchez Pizjuán, 50 metres away, they edged through a tunnel of flares and flames, fireworks going off all around them. This was, Marca’s cover had announced, Spanish football’s “big night”, and they were ready. A couple of hours later, though, they had seemed spent. Sevilla had played well – again – and it had been intense, impressive and enjoyable, with Steven N’Zonzi astonishing again. “An octopus,” Sampaoli called him. But with three central defenders and Casemiro immense, Madrid exercised increasing control, and Ronaldo’s 67th-minute penalty, their third in three games, appeared to end it early. The Pizjuán had fallen quiet, as if resigned, while Madrid “relaxed”, Marcelo said.
Their record would be 41 unbeaten, their lead over Sevilla seven points with a game in hand against Valencia. Sampaoli had sent on Pablo Sarabia and Stevan Jovetic, but Sevilla had not had a shot since the 53rd minute; neither team had since the penalty and it was late now, the game gone. But the game is never truly gone.
It was Ramos time – with a twist. Sarabia’s free-kick curled inwards from the left and, from just by the six-yard box, it was headed into the net. The Pizjuán erupted, the celebration coming in stages: first the release of the goal, the sense of revenge from Wednesday night, the late goal returned, a goal to equal things up, and then the realisation. All round the stadium they looked at each other, barely able to believe it: “Was that Ramos?!”
Sergio Ramos, the man who had made a career of late goals, headers that change matches and destinies; who had scored the late header that denied Sevilla the European Super Cup; the former Sevilla player this game had been all about, who they’d whistled all night, the noise reaching 100 decibels when his name was read out, and who now they cheered. It had to be him.
When Madrid had won a penalty in midweek, Ramos had taken it, a point to prove. Somehow, you knew something was coming. He dinked a Panenka down the middle to make it 3-2, the fightback begun, and turned to the Biris in the north stand, who had been abusing him that night and have been ever since he left as a 19-year-old. He signalled to his ears and then to the name on his shirt, before raising his hand in apology to the rest of the stadium – an apology few accepted.
Debates began, the subject dominated. Perhaps the most decisive game of the season so far became all about Ramos, the usual sides taken and trenches dug. There were stories about his hurt and about theirs too, talk was of formal complaints. There were statements and pleas for peace. “I’ll be buried with a Sevilla flag and a Madrid flag,” Ramos said. “It’s mad for Ramos and Sevilla to be divided,” Sampaoli said; “Sergio Ramos’s behaviour has always been exemplary,” Madrid’s communiqué claimed. On Sunday, AS’s cover led on: “Ramos returns to the volcano.” When he walked out, he embraced Sampaoli, and was whistled by fans. There were some chants of “son of a bitch” and chants for Dani Alves and Ivan Rakitic – two players that, Ramos noted, get treated as “Gods” when they go back despite not being brought up as Sevillistas, unlike him.
All the buildup had been about him, but the game hadn’t – although he played extremely well – until the 85th minute, until the moment that would mark this and may mark the entire season almost as much as his late equaliser in the clásico. Ramos seems to have an inbuilt sense of theatre. Another late, decisive header, but with a difference. He’d done it so many times to so many teams, including Sevilla; now he’d done it to his own team. At the Pizjuán, four days after that penalty, in the midst of that debate. Cue a thousand jokes and a million memes. “It wasn’t just words: he really is a Sevillista.” giggled El Diario de Sevilla. For Sevilla’s fans, this was not just fun, it was funny. “Ho! Ho! He who laughs last laughs better,” said the cover of Estadio Deportivo. “God’s law”, one Sevilla director put it.
Celebrating, they already thought it couldn’t get any better, but then it did get better. In the 93rd minute, Jovetic cut inside from the left and from 20 yards curled the ball into the net off the hand of the out-of-position Keylor Navas. There was pandemonium at the Pizjuán; players, staff and Sampaoli (of course) running round madly in all directions leaping and jumping into each others’ arms. “Open your eyes: it wasn’t a dream,” said El Diario de Sevilla. Another goal, another story for the game that one paper called the “most literary” there has been. It had been, Eduardo Florido wrote, “epic, passionate, spectacular, paradoxical, literary, vibrant, unforgettable, mad, memorable, funny, incredible, romantic, spiritual even, almost religious …” and now it had its finish.
Another of Monchi’s discoveries, another footballer hoping to restart his career at the Pizjuán, the striker they hope turn their football into goals, Jovetic had arrived in Seville from Italy admitting that he had learnt his Spanish watching the TV series Los Serrano. Two days later, he was playing Real Madrid. He scored. Four days after that he was playing Madrid again. And he scored again. The goal that finally defeated them, 41 games later, and reopened the title race. “Sevilla revolutionise the league!” shouted Marca’s front page, while El Mundo Deportivo, who led on “KO, Ramos style: Madrid taste their own medicine,” cheered “Viva la Liga!” and Sport’s over shouted: “League on fire!” Inside, they went for the old favourite: “Hay Liga!”. There is a league.
There is. And there might even be three teams in it. Barcelona are just two points behind Madrid this morning. Sevilla, meanwhile, are just one. “Candidates”, says the front of the Seville edition of AS. Asked if Sevilla were contenders Zidane said: “Of course.” Asked why, he replied: “You’ve seen them.” Sergio Ramos added: “They’re candidates, but let’s see which teams hold on when it gets tough.” Sevilla’s president Pepe Castro insisted: “The league is for other teams with bigger budgets but we’ll try everything.” Vitolo said: “It’ll be hard with Barcelona and Madrid there, but this team has soul. The longer we’re around getting in the way, the better.”
On Sunday night, they got in the way, alright. At the fourth attempt, the third in 10 days, Sevilla did what 30 others could not: beat Madrid. And while they needed some help from Ramos, while everything changed in five minutes, it was not solely chance. Asked about the performance against Madrid in the 3-3 draw in midweek, after which Zidane had admitted that Sevilla “deserved more,” Sampaoli rightly insisted: “it’s not fight … it’s play.” On Sunday night, he insisted – again, with some justification – that it hadn’t been one game, it had been more. Across the three matches, he said, Madrid had been the better side for only 40 minutes. Against Barcelona, Sevilla had eventually been undone by Leo Messi, but they had been impressive too. So, why not embrace their candidacy, as Sampaoli has done before? If only because the ambition may serve them well.
Sevilla’s opponents are powerful ones and there are flaws still. It’s hard to avoid the sense that they do not take enough chances and do not make enough either – it’s not only, or not even, the finishing that occasionally lets them down; it’s the final pass or as often the penultimate pass – but they’re great to watch, they’re scoring more goals than they have in a decade and this is the best start in their history. They’ve never reached the halfway stage of the season, when everyone has played everyone once, with so many points: they are on 39 when the previous best was 38 – and they still have a week to take that to 42. All with a new manager bringing an entirely new identity – one that has made Spanish football a better place – and trying to build a team with 11 players arriving in the summer and 13 leaving.
“Did you expect to be so well placed, so soon?” Sampaoli was asked. “No,” he said. “Never.”