When Real Madrid sold Cristiano Ronaldo to Juventus in the summer, they knew they were taking a gamble.
Heading off was a player who had led them to three-successive Champions League titles, won the latest of his five Ballons d’Or barely six months earlier and had scored at a rate of over a goal per game for his nine-year stay at Santiago Bernabeu, writing his name large into the history of the most storied club in world football.
As he sat watching Real Madrid slip to a 2-1 defeat against Levante, president Florentino Perez must have been mulling over the bet that backfired. During that game, Los Blancos missed an array of chances as they slipped to a third defeat in succession, and a fifth without a win.
Most damningly, though, Real clocked up 480 minutes without finding the net – the type of drought that Ronaldo alone scarcely suffered during his time in white, let alone the whole team. Indeed, only once in the club’s illustrious 116-year history has there been a longer scoreless run.
If ever there was evidence ahead of Saturday’s Clasico match up with Barcelona that Madrid needed an adequate Ronaldo replacement, this was it.
Of course, players of the Portuguese’s stature are not readily available, and it could even be argued, with some justification, that he was irreplaceable.
“We can’t be crying for someone who didn’t want to be here,” Isco said earlier in the week. But while he is right that Madrid must look to the future, he must also appreciate that a greater effort must be made to fill the Ronaldo vacuum.
Incessant rumours suggest that Real Madrid see Neymar as the heir to Cristiano’s Bernabeu crown. Long coveted by Madrid – he had a spell training with the youth squad as young as 14 – the Paris Saint-Germain star could be tempted by a move back to Spain, where he could find a platform to fulfil his personal ambitions.
One of the driving forces behind his move to Paris was his burning desire to be recognised as the best player in the world, something he felt he could not achieve whilst in the shadow of Lionel Messi.
Perez, a long-time admirer of the 26-year-old, has always had a belief that the stage of the Spanish capital would offer the former Santos star the showcase required to attain that goal.
“Being at Madrid would make it easier for Neymar to win it,” he said, speaking to El Larguero back in 2017. “Madrid is a club that gives big players what they need.”
While Ronaldo might dispute that second claim, having departed in the summer due to feeling underappreciated, it would be churlish to dispute the overall message, particularly as Real find themselves in need of a Galactico figurehead.
It is a challenge that Neymar would surely embrace.
Expectations that would overwhelm most have been a part of his everyday life for the duration of his career.
When Brazil played host to the World Cup in 2014, he was ubiquitous around the football-loving nation, even after his tournament was ended by injury at the quarter-final stage, while he has drawn the media spotlight with PSG for the duration of his stay.
His statistics, meanwhile, make for impressive reading.
Eight goals in eight Ligue 1 outings this season, plus four assists, represent a strong return, and while there may be doubts over the strength of the French top flight, he previously enjoyed 22 and 24-goal seasons in La Liga with Barcelona during his previous four-year stint in Spain.
And Ganso, the godfather to Neymar’s son, who is currently playing in France with Amiens, believes the Madrid target has improved since moving to Ligue 1.
“He’s matured a lot, primarily,” he told L’Equipe . “Before, he’d primarily be a dribbler, trying to beat players with great skills. He was already scoring a lot, but tactically he didn’t always think what was to be done correctly.”
More than just his goals, though, Neymar encapsulates the glitz, glamour, flair and excitement that Real Madrid have come to represent throughout their history. His eye for the spectacular, his willingness to humiliate opponents with an incredible piece of individualism and his mass appeal all combine to make him a perfect addition.
But signing him, clearly, will be no mean feat. PSG will want to recoup the €222 million (£200m/$262m) outlay they lavished on the player little more than a year ago, while there is no release clause to trigger as such agreements are illegal in French contract law.
“I wish Real Madrid and Barcelona the best of luck in their attempt to bring Neymar away from here!” Marquinhos sarcastically told the media last week, responding to the latest round of claims that PSG’s ace is readying himself for a return to Spain.
“People know what our president is like, how he is with his people and how he loves our important players.”
Neymar himself, meanwhile, is under contract until 2022 and branded rumours of a return to Barcelona or a move to Real Madrid as “fake news” in a recent Instagram stories post.
Madrid, though, are a club that have made the impossible possible in the past. If they are to regain those glory days in the near future, they have to find a way of doing so again because this Galactico-less version of their first-team is also destined to become trophyless this season.