Gareth Bale and building from within are Real Madrid's best options for life after Ronaldo
No sooner had Cristiano Ronaldo's move to Juventus been confirmed than the roll call of usual suspects to replace the Portugal captain at the Bernabeu was dusted off: Neymar, Kylian Mbappe, Harry Kane, Eden Hazard ... it is a list as well-thumbed as Florentino Perez's cheque book during his first spell at the helm of Real Madrid.
The Real president's first reaction will be to break the bank in response to losing his star attraction, but none of those players will be easy to land. Mbappe and Neymar are under lengthy contracts, and minimum release clauses do not exist in Ligue 1. Daniel Levy stands between Perez and Kane, and any inquiry for Hazard would be met with a similar response: not for less than €200 million and probably for considerably more.
Even Perez might balk at those numbers after Real issued a swift denial of a €272 million bid for the France international last week.
Neymar might view Ligue 1 as a steppingstone, but having washed his hands of one player with a tendency to detract from the efforts of the collective -- albeit one who scored a lot of goals -- Perez would be well advised not to remove his fingers from the fire just to plunge them into the frying pan with a move for another.
There is little point in trying to replace the irreplaceable; Ronaldo is a one-of-a-kind player. But Perez pre-empted a post-Cristiano landscape in 2013 when he signed Gareth Bale for a world-record fee. Rather than forking out another this summer, it is time to hand the mantle to the Welshman.
With Ronaldo, the team often found itself playing for his benefit. They should now be handed the opportunity to prove that they can be successful in his absence. Madrid are not short of talent, and the notion that a new superstar is required undermines the entire squad.
In Julen Lopetegui, Perez hired a coach with a long-term plan in mind and one noted for developing youth. If Perez plays to his manager's strengths, he might find the rewards more profitable than a quick fix.
What effect Ronaldo will have on a settled and unified Juve dressing room will provide an interesting side-narrative to Real's season. Massimiliano Allegri was offered the Madrid job and turned it down. Accommodating Ronaldo is now his problem.
Perez's experiment might not work. Lopetegui might not even last the season. But Madrid have spent the past two years hoovering up some of the finest young talent in the world, and on paper, Lopetegui is the right man to harness it.
Vinicius Junior could prove to be Madrid's Mbappe. At €45 million he is hardly going to be eased in at Castilla and will be given an immediate chance to justify that price tag.
The signing of Alvaro Odriozola for a similar fee is another example of Real's long-term blueprint. Rodrygo, the "next-next Neymar," will join in 2019. Combined, the two Brazilian teenagers have cost €99 million.
Perez has been playing a long game and should continue with that strategy rather than parachuting in a potentially disruptive player who won't fit into Lopetegui's system, based purely on his desire for a big name.
Real already have several of those, and Bale is well-prepared to take on the Ronaldo role in 2018-19. The Portuguese carried his nation to European glory in 2016, but Bale took a Wales side featuring a number of second-tier players to the semis. He is more than capable of shouldering a world-class Real Madrid squad.
Bale managed 21 goals in 39 appearances during an injury-ravaged 2017-18. With Marco Asensio on the opposite flank, Real have two goal-scoring threats out wide whose assist records will breathe new life into Karim Benzema. Freed from the obligation to tee up Ronaldo at every turn, the Frenchman will rediscover his dormant eye for goal.
The only if -- and it is a significant one -- is Bale's ability to last a full season. During his Bernabeu career, he has managed just more than 50 percent of the total game time available to him.
But that means there is plenty of juice remaining in the Cardiff Express. If Real can squeeze out two or three years of his explosive best, there is no need to look elsewhere. He proved last season that, when he's fit, few players are his equal.
Nobody is bigger than the club, the saying goes. In every sense, Ronaldo was bigger than Real Madrid.
Bale, who said after inspiring Champions League glory in Kiev from the bench that he wants to play every week, must now be assigned the boots he was bought to fill five years ago.