Real Madrid head into Saturday’s blockbuster clash with Barcelona on the verge of crisis and in need of the world’s two most expensive players, Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale, to prove their worth.
Madrid trail Barcelona by three points at the top of La Liga as their “Galacticos” have failed to fire, while Barca have hardly skipped a beat despite losing four-time World Player of the Year Lionel Messi to injury for the past two months.
When Madrid president Florentino Perez added Bale to a star-studded squad over two years ago, the Welshman and Ronaldo were supposed to form an unstoppable partnership.
Yet, since scoring in the Copa del Rey and Champions League finals in his debut season, Bale has endured a frustrating 18 months due to injuries, a lack of form and even Madrid’s own demanding support turning on him.
When Rafael Benitez was appointed to replace the sacked Carlo Ancelotti amid much uproar from Madrid’s players and fans in June, he was given one specific task — to get the best out of Bale.
Yet, despite a promising start to the campaign in a new central role, a persistent calf injury has restricted Bale to just seven appearances in Madrid’s 15 games this season.
Moreover, Benitez’s men have tended to be better off without Bale, winning six and drawing twice in the games he didn’t feature compared to four wins, two draws and a defeat when he has.
Bale still has credit in the bank with Perez and, by proxy, Benitez. However, he was consistently booed by Madrid’s fans towards the end of last season and is likely to endure similar treatment on Saturday if he doesn’t produce his best display in quite some time.
By contrast, Ronaldo’s contribution to Madrid can’t be questioned, at least until recent weeks. The Portuguese has become the club’s all-time leading scorer in just his seventh season and won the Ballon d’Or in each of the past two seasons.
Yet, by his own remarkable standards, Ronaldo’s form has dipped this season. A return of 13 goals in 15 games would be sensational for most players, but there has been a worrying trend of those strikes coming in batches against weaker opposition rather than when it matters most.
Indeed, Ronaldo has failed to net in nine separate games this season, including when Madrid have dropped points against Atletico Madrid and Sevilla and in two Champions League clashes against Paris Saint-Germain.
His behaviour at the end of the second meeting with the French champions drew particular ire in the Spanish press as he warmly greeted PSG coach Laurent Blanc and president Nasser Al-Khelaifi, fuelling rumours that he could be ready to move on from Madrid at the end of the season.
Transfer speculation has also surrounded Bale with Manchester United believed to be keen to bring the 2012/13 Premier League Player of the Year back to England.
Bale also isn’t helped by comparison to Neymar, who Barca bought for a similar outlay in the same summer he joined Madrid.
In the time that Messi has been on the sidelines, Neymar has arguably been the best player in the world, taking the lead role to propel Barca to the top of the table.
Bale has never been able to put the consistency shown by the Brazilian together at Madrid. When he did finally return to the side from injury last time out at Sevilla, he and Ronaldo looked like strangers as Madrid succumbed to their first defeat of the season.
Another one on Saturday and it could be the beginning of the end for one, if not both, of Perez’s most precious men.