Madrid awoke Sunday to an ugly thick fog, a persistent grey drizzle - and to the realization that the most expensive team in world football history might well be on the road to failure.
Real Madrid spent an astonishing 260 million euros (374 million dollars) last summer on eight new players, including Cristiano Ronaldo, by far the most expensive player in football history.
The objective of profligate club president Florentino Perez was to quickly end the European and Spanish domination of Barcelona, and to put Real back where they had been 10 years ago: at the top of the world game.
Manuel Pellegrini's star-studded side made a promising start in September, with Ronaldo and Kaka scoring goals. But the former suffered a badly twisted ankle in October and, in his absence, the whites were humiliated in the King's Cup by third division part-timers Alcorcon.
Ronaldo was fit again for the November 29 "Clasico" away to Barcelona, but could not prevent a narrow 1-0 defeat. The year ended with Barca winning the World Club Cup and thereby claiming six trophies in 2009, a new world record.
Real started 2010 with a frustrating 0-0 draw away to Osasuna, with Kaka out with a pubis injury, which allowed Barca to stay two points ahead of them atop La Liga. On Saturday, to make matters much worse, Real surprisingly crashed 1-0 away to Athletic Bilbao, a club which is really their antithesis because they rely on Basque youngsters and never sign foreigners. Later on Saturday, Barca thrashed Sevilla 4-0 and opened up a massive five-point gap on Real.
Barca are “Winter Champions” - the honorary title given to the team top at the halfway stage - a week before the end of the first half of the season.
On Saturday night television channel TeleMadrid commented that “it is going to be very difficult for Real to make up this five-point deficit.”
Madrid radio station Cadena COPE said that Ronaldo and Kaka are not proving to be “the decisive players in the league that “madridista” fans hoped they would be”, then added that Kaka “seemed lost on the pitch, without a clear function in the team.”
Cadena SER, for its part, claimed that “there is still a long way to go,” but then hinted that Real might be well advised to start concentrating on the Champions League, the final of which will be played in Madrid on May 22.
Real finished top of their autumn qualifying group and will face French hopefuls Lyon in the round of 16. Barca - who are keen to retain their European crown - face Vfb Stuttgart. The official Real website avoids making a critical analysis of the team's problems, simply claiming that the setback in Bilbao was “An Unjust Defeat” because the whites “dominated from start to finish.”
Pellegrini had offered a similar interpretation straight after the defeat, raising eyebrows by saying that “there was only one team on the field - Real Madrid.”
Madrid sports dailies AS and Marca, however, both offer a more critical analysis on Sunday.
Marca comments that the defeat in Bilbao “is an important step backwards” and that Barca's five-point lead is “a considerable difference.”
The conclusion of Marca is that Real's “margin for error has been reduced. They cannot slip up again ... They have not managed to score in their last two away games, and that is unacceptable.”
Real's lack of punch in attack is also one of the concerns of rival daily AS.
Another concern for AS editor Alfredo Relano is that Real only managed “one really good move,” and that the team depended on “shots from distance.”
Relano's conclusion is that “the weeks pass, the season advances, and it is clear that Madrid has not reached the level of excellence of Barca.”
In February 2006 Perez hastily resigned the club presidency when it was obvious that the much-vaunted “Galactico” team of expensive stars that he had constructed since 2000 was unable to compete with Barca.
Might he be tempted to abandon the ship a second time, if it again becomes clear that his expensive side cannot seriously challenge Barca's domination?