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Real Madrid's big No.9 problem after Ronaldo exit as Kane, Hazard talk falls flat

Paolo Bandini joins the FC panel to provide the latest on Edinson Cavani and whether he could be a good strike partner for Karim Benzema at Real Madrid.
ESPN FC's La Liga correspondent Sid Lowe explains what it will take for Gareth Bale to seize the opportunity left by Cristiano Ronaldo's departure.

Real Madrid president Florentino Perez is faced with an unusual problem. He would like to spend lots of money on a top goal-scoring forward to replace Cristiano Ronaldo, but is stumped by the lack of options.

Long term targets Neymar and Kylian Mbappe are both committed to remaining at Paris Saint-Germain, and Perez last week played down expectations that Real would have an expensive Galactico at the club.

"We said the other day that we would add magnificent players to our squad -- and that is what we are doing, with Alvaro Odriozola and now with Vinicius Junior," the Bernabeu chief said during the presentation of the €45 million Brazilian teenager.

"We continue to make bets on youngsters with unique characteristics, who thanks to their talent can soon become the best players in the world."

That dampening quote followed speculation that Chelsea's Eden Hazard could be heading to Madrid in a €100 million plus move as the most attractive available and experienced replacement for Ronaldo.

Over the last week, the consensus emerging from the club appears to be that Madrid do not need another player who starts wide but then cuts into the centre, with Gareth Bale, Marco Asensio and Vinicius all available to new coach Julen Lopetegui.

The Bernabeu decision-makers appear to have shifted the focus to an out-and-out No.9, somebody who can come as close as possible to scoring the goals they have lost following Ronaldo's exit.

That makes sense, although no obvious name is jumping out. Previous rumours of interest in Tottenham's Harry Kane and Bayern Munich's Robert Lewandowski have gone very quiet. The names floated more recently -- Inter Milan's Mauro Icardi , PSG's Edinson Cavani and Valencia's Rodrigo Moreno do not get too many pulses racing around the Bernabeu.

On Friday morning, Marca published results of an online poll which in an article headlined: "Kane is the favourite of the Blancos fans in a list of No.9s which does not excite."

With Hazard, Neymar and Mbappe not included as they are not centre-forwards, the England captain topped the poll asking who was the best to replace Ronaldo, getting 22 percent of a very split vote. That put him ahead of Icardi and Cavani who got 14 percent, and Lyon's former Bernabeu youth teamer Mariano with 12 percent.

Within this context the AS website led on Friday morning with a story about how Lopetegui's plan for dealing with Ronaldo's exit was to strengthen the team's defence. That is also not something to excite the hearts of Madrid fans.

It was perhaps no coincidence the team's No.9 Karim Benzema was out to speak with the club's official media after training on Thursday.

"I joined this club to win silverware, be a success and achieve a lot of things," Benzema told RMTV. 

"I knew that I'd have some tough seasons, but it doesn't matter because this is the best club in the world. I'm really happy."

One of those "tough seasons" was last season, when the exiled France international hit just 12 goals in 47 games across all competitions, and was regularly whistled by unimpressed locals at the Bernabeu. This was his worst return since 2009-10, although Benzema, 31 in December, is not a prolific scorer anyway.

Madrid ended 2017-18 with a third consecutive Champions League trophy, evidence that Perez's recent policy of foregoing expensive high-profile signings and concentrating on paying big wages to their stars and adding younger replacements has worked pretty well.

Just last January, Zinedine Zidane pointed out how difficult it was to find players who would improve his squad. Although one possible reason for the Frenchman's surprise exit at the end of the campaign was that he felt the team needed a big shake-up -- and Ronaldo's exit makes changes in attack even more necessary.

The €100m paid by Juventus for the Portugal captain, and the €20 million-a-year salary saving, means Madrid do have money to spend. Even before this summer, the club's latest accounts included a "cash balance" of €178 million. 

Were the right player available, Perez could probably set a new world transfer record if he wished to. But that looks unlikely .

Lopetegui's squad fly out for their International Champions Cup fixtures in the United States this weekend with Bale, Benzema and Vinicius likely to start the former Spain coach's first game in charge of his new team, against Manchester United in Miami on Tuesday.

That is not a bad front three, but it lacks a real world class No.9. Perez has a month left in this transfer window to resolve his most unusual problem -- so much money on hand but nobody to spend it on.

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