Real Madrid’s season has entered a decisive phase. Last weekend Jose Mourinho’s side reduced Barcelona’s lead in La Liga to five points and on Wednesday evening they face Lyon in the second leg of their UEFA Champions League Round-of-16 tie.
The two sides drew 1-1 in France a fortnight ago, a result that gives the nine-time European champions a slight advantage, although memories are still fresh of their exit to the same opposition at the same stage of last year’s competition, their sixth consecutive elimination in the last 16.
One man who will be doing his utmost to prevent a repeat of those past failures is Real's tireless and versatile defender Sergio Ramos, who spoke exclusively to FIFA.com about Wednesday’s crunch assignment, Mourinho’s impact on the team, the challenge of chasing down Barcelona, and his career plans.
FIFA.com: Sergio, what are your thoughts ahead of Wednesday’s decisive tie with Lyon? How are preparations going?
Sergio Ramos: It’s an extremely important game for the club. The Champions League is a competition that really excites us and I’m sure there will be a party atmosphere at the Santiago Bernabeu.
The team’s been playing well lately and winning, although you could say this match is a mental test more than anything else.
Obviously one of the key things about being a footballer is being mentally prepared, and if you’ve got your head right, then you’re going to respond on the pitch. There’s a lot riding on this game psychologically. We want to reach the last eight, we want to win la décima (a tenth European champions’ crown) and we’re up against tough opponents who knocked us out last year. There are a lot of factors that come into play, and we need to be more focused than ever because the French have caused us plenty of disappointment before.
In what way have Real Madrid improved under Jose Mourinho?
He’s brought a lot of balance and organisation on the pitch and in and around the dressing room. He knows how to handle things and not burn the players out. He’s very honest and direct with you too and that makes people excited about coming to work. He also knows how to get the best out of each player and he has a lot of character and always sticks up for us, which is greatly appreciated in the dressing room. It’s important for a coach and his players to have a good relationship because that shows on the pitch. We couldn’t be happier with him.
You’ve been playing well at full-back and at centre-half this season and you’ve become one of the most effective passers in the team. How would you assess your development in the last few years?
You have to be critical with yourself and push yourself to the limit. Every day I try to grow and improve as a player and as a person. That’s my main objective. When people mention things like those pass statistics it’s a reward for the work you do day in, day out and it encourages you to keep striving for more. If I had to retire tomorrow, I hope I’d be able to do it with a clear conscience, not just because I’d done my job as a defender but for other things on top of that.
Is there any part of your game you’d like to improve?
I’m working especially hard on my crossing, on playing more precise passes and on how I strike the ball. Tactically you can always improve too. You learn as you go along and experience is always a help.
Barcelona still have a healthy cushion in the league and are looking strong. Can you see them slipping up?
It’s a tough competition and we have a lot of ground to make up. We’re not going to throw the towel in, though, because we want to win this title. Every game is a final for us now and we won’t be taking anything for granted. We’ve already seen how Barça can trip up when you least expect them to, and if you relax, let your concentrate slip and fail to respect your opponents, no matter who they are, then you could be in for a shock. Obviously we need them to drop points, but we have to keep on winning too. We have very little margin for error, although Barcelona still have to come to the Bernabeu.
The last time you played Barcelona you clashed with some of their players, who are also team-mates of yours in the Spain side (Ramos was sent off for a robust challenge on Lionel Messi at the end of last November’s 5-0 defeat and shoved Carles Puyol and Xavi before he left the field). Do you regret that and have you spoken to them since?
We didn’t make a huge deal out of it. It was a big game with a lot of kicking going on and a lot of physical stuff. But once the game’s over, that’s that. We’re all colleagues and if there’s one thing that sums up the Spain team it’s the great atmosphere we’ve got going. I get on well with everyone, no matter which club they’re from. Those are just things that happen out on the pitch.
Will that defeat and the gap between you in the league influence the way you approach next month’s Copa del Rey final with Barcelona?
It’ll add a bit of extra spice to a game that’s already pretty spicy as it is. It’s the clásico, against our eternal rivals, and it’s been the big game in La Liga for the last few years. Obviously you can’t forget a result like the one we had in the last derby, but the good thing about football is that you can always get revenge and recover from things like that. The cup final will be a totally different game.
Real Madrid want to renew your contract and make you a club legend. Do you want to stay here for good?
I know I need to earn a few more stripes and I’m more than happy to accept that challenge. I’ve been here for seven years and I’ve absorbed the values of this great club by playing alongside legends like Zizou [Zinedine Zidane] and Raul. Now I’m sharing the captaincy with Iker Casillas and I have to set an example and help the newer players, who don’t know the club so well. As for the future, you can never say what’s going to happen in football, although I am happy here. I’m very grateful to Sevilla and Madrid for having moulded me as a player and a person. And what more can I ask for than to be with the best club in the world, in a fantastic city and with my family close by? I love it here and if they offer to renew my contract for life, I’d jump at the chance.