For the first time since May 2015 – a run stretching 46 months – Real Madrid is out of the Champions League.
Not since the semifinal against Juventus four seasons ago has Real tasted the bitterness of elimination from Europe’s premier club competition.
This time, on an enthralling evening in the Spanish capital, it was Ajax which put Real to the sword, scoring four stunning goals – the third awarded after an agonizing four-minute wait for VAR – to stun the reigning champion 4-1 on the night and 5-3 on aggregate.
For many Real managers over the years, not least Zinedine Zidane, the Champions League has provided welcome respite from underwhelming league campaigns.
When the Bernabeu floodlights come on and the Champions League anthem plays, this team has – at times in recent years – felt unbeatable.
But this season, in the gaping absence of Cristiano Ronaldo and under the leadership of two hapless managers, Julen Lopetegui and Santiago Solari, the team has become stale and predictable.
Real’s season has now crumbled, the last trophy available to win evaporated from its grasp on a humiliating night on home soil.
Following back-to-back El Clasico defeats, it seems likely Solari’s ill-fated run as manager will come to an end.
It feels like the end of an era, too.
Spain’s Marca newspaper labeled it the “failure of the century,” adding that “heads will roll” after this result.
Real’s season over
Real Madrid started the match like a team possessed, unrecognizable from the insipid side which was second best for much of the first leg three weeks ago.
Lucas Vazquez swung in an enticing early cross which Raphael Varane could only head against the crossbar from just five yards.
But the defensive fissures which have blighted the defending champion this season began to show, as Ajax’s slick passing began to expose Real’s backline.
Sergio Reguilon – the much-vaunted left back brought in to replace veteran Marcelo, now seen as a liability – lost possession from a throw, gifting Dusan Tadic the ball.
The Serbian picked out the run of Hakim Ziyech, who arrived late into the box and finished past Thibault Courtois with aplomb.
Los Blancos refused to heed that as a warning and it would take just 10 minutes for Ajax to double its lead.
Tadic was again the creator, producing an outrageous piece of skill as he wove his way through Real’s midfield and found David Neres, who rounded Courtois to slot home.
The Bernabeu fell silent as Real Madrid – the 13-time European Cup winner and champion in four of the last five seasons – plodded helplessly around the pitch.
Barely 20 minutes had been played but it was already a performance which had reduced several fans to tears.
This young Ajax team, who some predicted would wilt under the pressure of playing at this venue, continued to pour forward relentlessly, creating chance after chance.
Midfielder Frenkie de Jong – one of several Ajax academy products on the field – put in an imperious performance, making good on the cheeky promise he had made to new employers Barcelona, who he will join in the summer, to knock out Real Madrid.
Ajax will, however, have been aware that a similar pattern to that of the first leg was emerging – creating chances but failing to take them – a game which Real went on to win.
Despite a lackluster performance, Real did continue to provide a threat. Substitute Gareth Bale, on for the injured Vazquez, rattled the woodwork before Varane headed wide.
But the host’s night went from bad to worse, as Vinicius – undoubtedly Real’s most dangerous player – was forced off in tears with injury.
Not tonight, VAR
It would take little more than 15 minutes of the second half for Dutch visitor’s to put the tie to bed, though confirmation of Ajax’s third goal seemingly took an age.
After Tadic had slammed the ball into the top corner after a flowing Ajax move, referee Felix Brych entered into a more than four-minute consultation with his video assistant referee.
The German wanted to know whether the ball had in fact gone out for a throw when full back Noussair Mazraoui made a tackle to start the move.
After an agonizing wait for those Ajax fans in the rafters of the Bernabeu – and the brave few who were hidden among the home crowd, but exposed by their celebrations – Brych confirmed the goal would stand.
Real’s suspended captain Sergio Ramos – so often the man to haul his team across the line on the big occasion – could only watch on helplessly from somewhere in Madrid, surely now ruing his decision to pick up a deliberate yellow card in the first leg.
With 20 minutes remaining, Marco Asensio gave Real Madrid a glimmer of hope by firing in from the edge of the area.
That hope, however, was extinguished within two minutes, as Lasse Schoene’s exquisite free-kick from an improbable position secured Ajax a passage through to the quarterfinals.
Defender Nacho, in to replace Ramos, was shown a red card for petulantly kicking out in the dying seconds, a fitting way for this flailing Real team to bow out of the Champions League.
Tottenham goes through
In the night’s other game, Tottenham secured its place in the quarterfinal of the competition following a 1-0 win at Borussia Dortmund.
Leading 3-0 from the first leg, Harry Kane’s second half strike ended any hopes of an improbable Dortmund comeback.
Kane’s strike makes him Tottenham’s all-time leading goalscorer in European competition with 24 goals.