Real Madrid’s exit from the Champions League has cast serious doubt on club president Florentino Perez’s plans, which had included winning a 10th European title in May.
An early goal from Cristiano Ronaldo on Wednesday against Lyon had evened the two-leg series and put Madrid on course to reach the quarterfinals for the first time since 2004. But Miralem Pjanic’s 75th-minute goal sent the French team through 2-1 on aggregate after a 1-1 draw at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium.
Madrid coach Manuel Pellegrini and Lyon counterpart Claude Puel seemed to agree that while the hosts dominated the first half, the visitors were the stronger team in the second.
"In the first half they were a good team," Puel said. "They’re going in the right direction and the coach is doing a great job."
Not everyone would agree. Madrid is at the top of the Spanish league, level on points with defending European champion Barcelona. However, this season it has exited both the Copa del Rey and the Champions League at the round-of-16 phase.
Perez clearly expected a better showing when he spent about €250 million ($340 million) in the offseason on signing players such as Ronaldo, Kaka, Karim Benzema and Xabi Alonso and bringing in Pellegrini. An appearance in the Champions League final, to be played in the Bernabeu, was a major objective for this Madrid squad.
In the wake of Wednesday’s elimination, the position of Pellegrini is under intense scrutiny, with influential sports daily Marca heading its front page with: "Goodbye Champions League, Goodbye Pellegrini."
However, Madrid director general Jorge Valdano backed the coach after the game.
"Debate always surrounds the coach of Madrid," Valdano said. "Pellegrini has a contract and the club’s plans are that he should continue as Madrid coach."
Meanwhile, a poll of about 10,000 participants by El Mundo newspaper laid the blame on the players. Forty-six percent of those asked said the Champions League failure was the fault of those on the field, with only 16 percent blaming Pellegrini. Another 22 percent saw Perez as the culprit.
Jose Maria "Guti" Gutierrez blamed the result on too much individualistic play, a similar appraisal to that of Pellegrini.
"We need to be more of a team," said the midfielder, who set up Ronaldo’s goal before fading in the second half.
However, Valdano contradicted Guti and insisted that Madrid’s 3-2 victory against Sevilla in the league last weekend, after coming back from 2-0 down, was proof of a strong team spirit.
"We need to be more together than ever now," Valdano said.
What everyone seems to be agreed on is that with only the league title left to fight for, the pressure on Madrid’s president, coach and players has increased enormously with one result.