If, if , if….many Manchester United sympathisers will start their look back at the Champions League exit to Real Madrid like that, and with good reason. If Nani not been shown that ever so harsh red card, things may have turned out very differently for the Premier League champions-elect – and Sergio Ramos may well have been rueing an inadvertently decisive contribution to this most finely balanced of ties.
The man who is now Spain’s premier defender wouldn’t have deserved that. When, wrong-footed by Nani’s cross, he poked the ball past Diego López, it wasn’t even up there with his most notable moments of clumsiness – one just has to recall his shoot-out penalty into orbit back in the semi-final of this competition against Bayern Munich last spring, or any one of his record 16 red cards since arriving in the Spanish capital back in 2005.
It wasn’t a moment typical of his game here. He and Raphael Varane had been sturdy in the first half as United attacked with real verve and purpose, despite ceding the bulk of possession. It was clear to an international audience why José Mourinho is happy to leave Pepe on the bench for now, with this fledgling central defensive pairing bursting with promise.
Ramos himself made a series of blocks, last-ditch tackles and interceptions in that first 45 minutes, as the visitors stretched every sinew to contain the English side’s lusty breaks forward. His display epitomised the way in which he has looked every inch the leader for Real Madrid in recent weeks.
When Ramos headed the winner in Saturday’s far-from-anecdotal clásico win over Barcelona, it had the feel of an iconic moment. When the 26-year-old pulled the captain’s armband from his left bicep and pointed to it as he wheeled away, it recalled Carles Puyol’s similar celebration when he scored in the same net – in front of the Fondo Sur – during Barça’s 6-2 win at the Bernabéu in May 2009. Ramos had started the whole shebang, beginning the move for Karim Benzema’s opener with a zesty interception and a pass out to Alvaro Morata.
He fulfilled the same inspirational role for Spain in Euro 2012, marshalling the defence from the centre-half position that it had always seemed likely he would return to, after an exile at right-back. Not only did he do his primary job to near-perfection, he showed the nerve to cheekily chip in a crucial penalty against Portugal in the semi-final shootout, just weeks after Madrid’s choke against Bayern.
Ramos is as assured off the field. An engaging and humorous interviewee, he is a rare beast in this age of media-coached, teeth-whitened celebrity. He is uncomplicated and unassuming, and doesn’t take himself too seriously.
The moments of mammoth injudiciousness will never completely disappear for Ramos’ game – as evidenced by the trip of Barcelona’s Adriano in the penalty area as stoppage time wound down in Saturday’s clásico, which he inexplicably got away with – but that’s one of the most endearing things about him. He is a fine footballer; not perfect, but somebody who embodies the essence of what it is to play for Real Madrid. Ramos is desperate to win but never scared to fail.
In his way, he is as much of a galáctico as any of the Bernabéu’s most celebrated names. This might be the season that he writes his name indelibly into his club’s history.
Bet on Real Madrid to win the Champions League at 3.30
Read more European football opinions from Andy Brassell