Is Ronaldo's La Liga slump the beginning of his inevitable decline?
Cristiano Ronaldo looked glum as the Bernabeu celebrated around him. Players trotted over to exchange high-fives and slaps on the back, but there was not a flicker of a smile.
Ronaldo placed the ball on a silver platter for Isco to score the final goal in Real Madrid's comfortable 3-0 defeat of Las Palmas on Sunday evening. "Cristiano gave the assist, and I know he was very happy with it," Zinedine Zidane assured after the match. If Ronaldo was indeed happy with his assist, he turned in an Oscar-worthy performance to coat that supposed joy with a layer of sullenness.
Victory was vital for Real Madrid -- and by extension Zidane -- after consecutive defeats to Girona and Tottenham. Casemiro opened the scoring against Las Palmas with a well-controlled header in the first half before Marco Asensio boomed in a second goal from the Tony Yeboah School of thunderous strikes. Isco tucked in the third from deep inside the box.
Ronaldo was conspicuous by his continued absence on the score-sheet. The 32-year-old has scored one solitary goal in LaLiga this season, a late winner against Getafe on a sun-soaked afternoon at the Coliseum Alfonso Perez. Six goals in the Champions League prop up his precious goal-scoring statistics but cannot hide the reality that Ronaldo is not at the races.
As the Real Madrid team lined up in the Bernabeu tunnel ahead of kick-off against Las Palmas, Ronaldo sat on a step and rested his head against the wall. This may be a clumsy attempt at amateur psychology, but it looked like he was trying a little too hard to exude calmness. Perhaps more than anything else, he was trying to convince himself that he was cool and collected.
One hour later the teams were back in the bowels of the Bernabeu, waiting for the dressing-room stragglers to emerge before re-entering the pitch as a group. "Vamos, Cris," encouraged Kiko Casilla. Twenty-year-old Jesus Vallejo -- making his first La Liga start for Real Madrid -- offered sage advice: "It will go in, mate, be patient." Ronaldo looked away from his young teammate. His expression remained the same.
Another 45 minutes passed without Ronaldo scoring. Along with Karim Benzema, his maligned, whistled, and misfiring strike-partner, the No. 7 was the subject of persistent questioning in the pressroom.
"We're not worried that [Ronaldo and Benzema] haven't scored many goals because throughout the season, they'll make the difference," captain Sergio Ramos said. "Cristiano always makes the difference in the end," Zidane added.
Voices outside the dressing room were not as forgiving of Ronaldo's surliness:
"His drought in front of goal is leading him to confuse ambition and selfishness," journalist Antonio Romero argued. "At times, he acted like the spoiled kid who takes the ball home when things aren't going well for him."
Ronaldo's general play is not a significant cause for concern. He contributes reasonably well in open play and takes up intelligent positions in the penalty area. Yet the incisive edge that previously defined his game has now deserted him. Seven shots against Las Palmas took his total for the season to one goal from 48 shots. To contextualise that figure, Lionel Messi has scored 12 goals from 69 shots. The habitual tendency to compare the two players serves only to demonstrate that at the moment, there is no comparison to be made.
It is possible that we are simply bearing witness to Ronaldo's inevitable, gradual decline. Real Madrid operate in the upper echelons of elite sport, where the margins are almost incomprehensibly fine. Perhaps, at the age of 32, Ronaldo has reached the brow of the hill and is descending on the other side. This current season is his 16th as a professional footballer, and his admirable professionalism and dedication will only preserve his status at the top of the game for a finite period of time.
Ronaldo's incrementally decreasing goal figures lend weight to this theory. He scored 61 goals across all competitions in the 2014-15 season. That figure decreased to 51 the following year, and then to 42 in 2016-17.
Perhaps the problem is rooted in something less tangible and more temporary: bad luck or turbulence away from the pitch. Ronaldo is still embroiled in a tax evasion case and has twin babies. Beneath his veneer of invincibility and confidence -- which is beginning to wear thin -- he carries baggage that can affect his performance, the same as the rest of us. This is too often overlooked.
Portugal coach Fernando Santos has excused Ronaldo from upcoming international friendlies against Saudi Arabia and the USA. As such, his next match will be the first Madrid derby at the Wanda Metropolitano. He has scored seven goals in six league clashes at the Vicente Calderon.
Ronaldo's colossal contribution in the latter stages of the Champions League last season won him the title of The Best at the FIFA Awards. A similar big-game performance in the Derbi Madrileno could be the tonic to lift him from this current malaise and postpone the gnawing effects of time.
Matt McGinn is ESPN FC's Real Madrid blogger. Twitter: @McGinn93