Madrid: With Real Madrid in fully-blown crisis mode following back-to-back defeats and a trip to Barcelona on the horizon, last weekend's 2-0 win over lowly Levante should have been a cause for celebration around the Santiago Bernabeu. For one of their under-fire stars, at least, it was. Gareth Bale responded to the fiercest criticism he has faced in his 20-month spell in the Spanish capital with his first two goals in nine games.
The Welshman reacted to his first strike by covering his ears to mock the boos and whistles his own fans had greeted him with five days previously in a shock 4-3 defeat by Schalke. Yet not everyone was thrilled. Cristiano Ronaldo's response to Bale firing home after his initial effort had been headed off the line by Ivan Ramis was more in tune with watching the opposition score than his one of his team-mates. "Ronaldo's extraordinarily stroppy reaction to Bale scoring from a rebound from his effort was bizarre and unhealthy," tweeted former England international Gary Linekar.
The Portuguese striker could barely hide his frustration once more when Bale was then credited with Real's second after his drive cannoned in off the former Spurs man's left leg. That led to the quite unbelievable situation where Bale's name was again whistled by the Bernabeu for having the audacity to claim a goal that was rightly his. "As a fan, I don't like to see Cristiano Ronaldo like this, but that is what he is like" said Madrid legend Carlos Santillana, who Ronaldo recently overtook to become the third highest goalscorer in the club's history. "He ought to cut out that cocky attitude."
- Humiliated - Ronaldo's arrogance has long been seen as part of the formula which has made him such a great player and almost untouchable in the Spanish capital. His record of 293 goals in 285 games since joining from Manchester United six years ago means it is not a matter of if he will surpass Raul to become Madrid's top marksmen of all-time but when, and he looks set to do it in 400 fewer appearances.
Moreover, he has won back-to-back Ballon d'Ors and led Los Blancos to their coveted 'La Decima' - a tenth European Cup - with a competition record 17 goals in one season less than a year ago. Yet, there is a growing feeling that a combination of factors are dragging Madrid's main man down just when they need him most ahead of Sunday's potentially decisive clash in the fight for the La Liga title.
Despite Madrid's struggles in recent weeks, Barca's lead at the top of the table is still only one point with 11 games remaining. Ronaldo has struck 41 times in 39 games this season, but his ratio has dropped from 1.39 goals a game to 0.64 in 2015. That run also included a ninth red card of his career for lashing out at Cordoba defender Edimar.
Off the field he has split from long-term Russian supermodel girlfriend Irina Shayk and was heavily criticised for hosting a huge 30th birthday party just hours after Real had been humiliated 4-0 by local rivals Atletico Madrid last month. He told reporters he wouldn't be speaking publicly for the rest of the season after the Schalke debacle, and was seen muttering a profanity towards the Bernabeu stands when his umpteenth attempt to find the net against Levante was met with derision.
Yet, Ronaldo has always loved a challenge, especially when it comes to his personal duel with Lionel Messi. "I am not going to stop. I want to reach Messi," he said when picking up the third Ballon d'Or of his career in January, just one behind the record held by the Argentine. With Messi in majestic form as Barca have won 17 of their last 18 games, there is no better stage for Ronaldo to prove he remains the king of world football than in front of a huge global audience at the Camp Nou on Sunday.