MADRID: Real Madrid`s reliance on their talisman Cristiano Ronaldo was more evident than ever on Tuesday as the Spanish and European champions meekly lost 1-0 at Espanyol in La Liga.
It was Real`s first defeat by the Catalans in 11 years after the latest in a long line of insipid displays without Ronaldo that highlight how important the evergreen 33-year-old - who has scored 12 goals in his last seven appearances - is to the side.
After being sent off and suspended for five games after pushing the referee during Real`s 3-1 victory over Barcelona in the Spanish Super Cup first leg on Aug. 13, Ronaldo missed the opening four league games of the season.
In that spell, Real secured victories over Deportivo La Coruna and Real Sociedad but drew at home to Levante and Valencia in the kind of tight affairs that Ronaldo would habitually pop up with a goal in. Real coach Zinedine Zidane omitted the Portuguese from last week`s win at Leganes in which Real were less than convincing, needing a 90th minute Sergio Ramos penalty to seal a 3-1 victory.
In the six Liga matches Ronaldo has missed this season, Madrid have claimed 11 points from a possible 18 and they find themselves adrift of the league’s top two.
They trail leaders Barcelona by 14 points and languish seven points behind second-placed city rivals Atletico, who were handicapped by a transfer ban last summer. The top two also have a game in hand over Real.
After seeing Ronaldo put in virtuoso displays in which he netted twice against Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions league and then Alaves in recent weeks, Zidane gambled that his squad would be good enough to see off Espanyol on Tuesday. However, his decision to also rest French striker Karim Benzema and play Gareth Bale as a centre forward backfired.
The Welshman was peripheral and is facing increasing pressure over his form from supporters and local media. Despite winning three Champions League trophies in his four seasons at the club, Bale has not made the kind of impact Real were hoping for when they paid a then world-record 85 million pounds ($117.48 million) to prise him from Tottenham Hotspur.
Seen as the natural heir to Ronaldo, the 28-year-old Welsh international still remains firmly in his shadow. The decision to give Ronaldo a night off was understandable given that Real`s season rests on claiming an unprecedented third consecutive Champions League crown as they prepare for Tuesay`s last 16 second leg at PSG holding a 3-1 lead.
However, the fact that Zidane`s side look so mediocre and impotent without their Portuguese forward this season will have alarm bells ringing at the Santiago Bernabeu.