Real reliance on Ronaldo exposed

REAL Madrid's reliance on its talisman Cristiano Ronaldo was more evident than ever on Tuesday as the Spanish and European champion meekly lost 0-1 at Espanyol in La Liga.

Espanyol forward Gerard Moreno (left) scores the only goal deep in injury time against Real Madrid during their Spanish league match at the RCDE Stadium in Cornella de Llobregat on Tuesday. 

REAL Madrid’s reliance on its talisman Cristiano Ronaldo was more evident than ever on Tuesday as the Spanish and European champion meekly lost 0-1 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 August 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 was 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, Real has claimed 11 points from a possible 18 and it finds itself adrift of the league’s top two.

It trails leader Barcelona by 14 points and languishes 7 points behind second-placed city rival Atletico, which was 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 UEFA 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 center forward backfired.

The Welshman was peripheral and is facing increasing pressure over his form.

Despite winning three UCL trophies in his four seasons at the club, Bale has not made the kind of impact Real was hoping for when it paid a then world-record 85 million pounds (US$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 now rests on claiming an unprecedented third consecutive UCL crown as it prepares for next Tuesay’s last 16 second leg at PSG holding a 3-1 lead.

However, the fact that Zidane’s side looks so mediocre and impotent without its Portuguese forward this season will have alarm bells ringing at the Santiago Bernabeu.

Meanwhile, Espanyol, 13th in the league standings, hadn’t won in seven matches, since it ended Barcelona’s 29-match unbeaten streak in the first leg of the Copa del Rey quarterfinals in January. Its last league win came eight rounds ago, at Levante. It had already beaten Atletico 1-0 at home and drawn Barcelona 1-1 in the league.