The abiding image to come out of Spanish football this week wasn't a goal or a stunning save. It was the sight of Gareth Bale fleeing the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium like a rat from a sinking ship.
Madrid were losing 1-0—before eventually going down 2-0—when Bale decided he'd had enough. He jumped in his car and disappeared unseen into the night. Or so he thought. Late-night Spanish football television programme El Chiringuito caught him on film.
With 78 minutes gone in the match, he was filmed driving away from the stadium. The programme's footage zeroed in on the winger—recognisable with his hands on the wheel—hightailing it.
The optics were terrible. Where was the solidarity from Bale with his team-mates who were sweating the jersey? Is this the man, dubbed sardonically by the Spanish press as "The Cardiff Express" and the most expensive player in the club's history, who is going to rescue their season? It doesn't look like it.
The 29-year-old is directly linked to the gravest problem facing Real Madrid this season—their inability to score goals since Cristiano Ronaldo's departure. In the absence of Ronaldo, who scored 450 goals during nine seasons at the club before leaving for Juventus last summer, Madrid's failure to score goals has left them 10 points behind Barcelona in the league table.
Barcelona's Leo Messi and Luis Suarez (28) combined have scored more goals in La Liga this season than Real Madrid (26). A quarter of a century has passed since Madrid scored so few goals in a league campaign. It's Bale's job, as heir apparent to Ronaldo, to fix the problem.
Zinedine Zidane, who surprisingly stepped down as head coach five days after winning last season's UEFA Champions League, disagreed with Real Madrid president Florentino Perez over the futures of Bale and Ronaldo.
"Zidane made it very clear when he decided to leave the club," says former club president Ramon Calderon. "He insisted on keeping Cristiano and transferring Bale, and the president did completely the opposite. Zidane also wanted to sign some players and transfer others—apart from Bale—but he didn't get [his wishes], so he decided to leave. And he was right."
The fact that Ronaldo—who despite leaving the club in May was still Real Madrid's leading scorer in 2018—is across the Mediterranean Sea scoring lots of goals for Juventus has compounded the situation. Many feel Ronaldo should have retired from top-flight football at Real Madrid; instead, Perez is feeling the heat for failing to sign an adequate replacement for him in the summer.
"Cristiano, who is the most important footballer in the world besides Messi, was underappreciated at Real Madrid," says Manu Sainz, a journalist with Diario AS. "Madridistas like to say the phrase 'Madrid is above everything.' With those words, they tried to justify the departure of Cristiano, but the truth is Real Madrid have been big because of its great players.
"Now Real Madrid are a big club with a small team. It doesn't have a team at the level of Barcelona or even Atletico Madrid to compete for a competition as big as La Liga. Nor are they at the level of Bayern Munich, Manchester City or Juventus in Europe."
Real Madrid gave Ronaldo's iconic No. 7 jersey to Mariano Diaz, who has failed to score a goal in La Liga this season and who is sidelined, nursing a back injury. Sainz says that swapping Ronaldo for Mariano was like trying to replace LeBron James or Stephen Curry with "an Alex Abrines," the Spanish NBA player with the Oklahoma City Thunder who usually comes off the bench. He suggests Ronaldo's attitude and fighting qualities on the pitch are also sorely missed.
"There is an absence of leadership in the Real Madrid dressing room," Sainz says. "Cristiano was a leader. The whole world knows the kind of professional he is. He is a model for his team-mates. He competes in every training session. He competes in every match. This is what the team has lost with the loss of Cristiano.
"It doesn't have a leader because Sergio Ramos is not a leader on the field. Ramos determines when to have a 'bonus' or when to have a team dinner, everyday stuff. But on the pitch, he doesn't inspire the respect and the competitive spirit Cristiano used to inspire."
Calderon agrees: "The point with Cristiano was not only that he scored 50 goals per season but also that he was a leader. He could help team-mates. He was always encouraging them to play better, to train more. For me, that is the main problem—not only the loss of his goals but Cristiano's behaviour, his attitude.
"It was a mistake to try to give the responsibility to Marco Asensio and Isco. They are very good players, but they behave like they're good enough to make the team better. But the reality is that the team made them appear better than they really are. Everyone was saying they are going to be nominated for the Ballon d'Or—they are far from that level. They have proved they are not leaders."
The UEFA Champions League is still up for grabs, but both Sainz and Manuel Bruna, a journalist with Mundo Deportivo, agree that the league title is beyond Madrid this season. This follows last season's disastrous domestic showing, when they were dumped out of the Copa del Rey by Leganes and finished the league title race 17 points behind Barcelona.
Calderon, citing historically low attendance figures at the Bernabeu, suggests the mood with Madridistas is worse this year than last, feeding into the first team's sense of vulnerability. They have won only two league titles since 2008.
"They lack a top-level player," Sainz says. "Players like Isco, who should be an important player, haven't performed well this season. There's an absence of charisma. There isn't a player at Real Madrid who goes out on to the pitch without fear like Messi, like Cristiano Ronaldo, like Neymar. Players who go out on to a pitch and inspire fear in the opposition.
"At the moment in Spain, when Real Madrid go on to the field, opponents go, 'Ah, good—we can win against this Real Madrid side.' In Europe, perhaps it's different—the shirt of Real Madrid inspires respect. Roma came to Madrid and were thrashed. In Spain, teams have less respect. They have no fear anymore. Real Madrid have lost their aura."
A lot of the club's hopes reside on the 18-year-old shoulders of Vinicius Jr., who has yet to be capped by Brazil. He scored a volley in Real Madrid's first-leg win over Leganes in the Copa del Rey on Wednesday, rounding off a 3-0 victory.
The rush to find a saviour reeks of desperation. After the cup win against Leganes, Marca, Spain's biggest-selling sports newspaper, splashed a picture across its front page, announcing: "Hope is called Vinicius."
Calderon offered his thoughts: "Vinicius has played well, but he's too young to give him the responsibility to lead this team. I don't think he can do that. Also, it's very dangerous when you put a player like him—so young and inexperienced—leading a club, pushing him to be the one to revive this team, to put it in a position to possibly win trophies. That's going to be a problem. No doubt."
Several strikers—including Genoa's Krzysztof Piatek, Inter Milan's Mauro Icardi and RB Leipzig's Timo Werner—have been mentioned in the Spanish press as possible stopgap solutions for Madrid's goal drought, but it would take a run of further poor results in January to expedite a move.
"It's very difficult—you can't sign reliable players in this transfer window," Calderon says. "You have to wait until June. Also, there is the whim of the president in remodelling the stadium, spending more than €575 million, which makes it difficult to match it in spend on new players.
"He is obsessed with the stadium. He's a megalomaniac when it comes to big construction works. Prices for players in the market [have inflated] too. Any big team must pay not less than €200 million for a star player."
All the signs point towards a major overhaul of the squad at the end of the season. There's a need to find replacements for senior players who are over 30, including Ramos, Marcelo, Karim Benzema and Luka Modric.
Isco and Keylor Navas—both out of favour with head coach Santi Solari—could be offloaded to generate cash. Bale will likely be sold too to make way for a Galactico such as Neymar, Harry Kane or Kylian Mbappe, according to Sainz, to lead the team.
Solari, Real Madrid's embattled coach, is neither part of the problem nor the solution. It seems likely he will be replaced during the summer—if he even makes it that far.
Tottenham Hotspur manager Mauricio Pochettino is rumoured to be the preferred candidate to take over, while a sensational return for Jose Mourinho—who left the earth scorched after three years managing the club and had public falling-outs with players such as Ramos and Iker Casillas—is also a possibility. It would be a troubling appointment for a large portion of Real Madrid's members.
"Real Madrid doesn't want to change trainer again midseason, but Solari won't continue after this season," Bruna says. "Everything hinges on the Champions League. If they get knocked out and the fans at the Bernabeu turn against Solari, it will be easier for Florentino to get rid of him. I don't think Mourinho will return, but if things are really bad, I wouldn't discount it.
"Florentino always loved Mourinho. Florentino likes coaches who aren't the players' friends. When Florentino stepped down as president for first time in 2006, he felt he had been too indulgent of the players. From then on, he doesn't want the players to be the bosses.
"A manager like Mourinho can occupy that space, but I think it would be a big mistake. Mourinho is not the man who used to win a lot of trophies anymore. Mourinho, for his own sake, has to reinvent himself because his football philosophy is out of date. The game has changed."
Sainz concurs: "A lot of Madridistas don't like Mourinho. To rebuild Real Madrid's squad with a guy who already has enemies in the club—I don't think it's the best idea. It would be trying to fix a problem in a war ambiance with a part of Madridismo."
Follow Richard on Twitter: @Richard_Fitz