After the first five games of this season an increasingly bullish mood had seemingly taken hold at Real Madrid as they began to believe they were successfully emerging in to the post-Ronaldo era. But that all dissolved over 90 traumatic minutes on Wednesday night as they were comprehensively beaten 3-0 by Sevilla.
Real had managed to largely banish talk about their former number seven with four wins and a draw, which had left them sitting at the summit of La Liga level on points with Barcelona. But on closer inspection, Real had benefited from an accommodating fixture list that presented them with the modest opposition of Getafe, Girona, Leganes, Athletic Bilbao and Espanyol.
And as soon as they faced a credible opponent in fourth-placed Sevilla they looked bereft of ideas and were overwhelmed in the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan Stadium.
Real will only be able to truly declare they have moved on from Ronaldo’s reign when they have negotiated their way past stronger opposition, and they will get another chance when they face city rivals Atletico at the Bernabeu on Saturday evening.
Last season, Real could not find a way to beat Atletico, drawing 0-0 in November and 1-1 in April, and it was only last month that Atleti consigned Real to a 4-2 defeat in the UEFA Super Cup final.
Even before being ambushed in Andalusia, Real had made heavy work of beating Espanyol at the Bernabeu last weekend, and had played for most of the game without their normal fluency in attack.
It was patently obvious Real were lacking the directness and energy normally provided by Gareth Bale, who watched the entire game from the bench after Julen Lopetegui had decided to rest him. Bale was recalled for the trip to Sevilla, and was again Real’s best attacking player, hitting the post, and offering the biggest threat.
Real are an altogether different side with Bale, who so far has four goals in seven games this season. You sense he has been waiting for this moment for five years as he bided his time in Ronaldo’s shadow.
Witness the manner in which he strode on to that wonderful pass from Luka Modric to score against Roma in the Champions League last week, and the Welshman will again be essential if Real want to trouble Atletico’s famously tight defence on Saturday night.
Atletico have endured a relatively slow start to the season, but are feeling better about themselves after comfortably beating Huesca 3-0 at home on Tuesday night with first-half strikes from Antoine Griezmann, Thomas Partey and Koke.
At the start of the season there was a belief within Atletico that they could launch a genuine challenge for the title they last won in 2014. But they have since stumbled slightly, already dropping points in draws to Valencia and Eibar, and a defeat to Celta Vigo.
While their renowned defence marshaled by Diego Godin has remained as solid as ever, up front Atletico have struggled for goals, and Diego Costa is still waiting to score his first in the league since February.
But in the aftermath of the win over Huesca Diego Simeone’s side believe they have the momentum they need to take in to the derby.
“Little by little we are getting back to our best,” reflected the Atletico defender Filipe Luis. “We need to get used to winning again. We had a tough start to the campaign, and we always demand so much of ourselves here and you can’t always be at your best. We’re on the right track.”
It might still be September, but this derby represents a pivotal moment in the season for both sides; a Real win would open up a five point lead over their neighbours, while an Atletico win would instead see them overtake Real by a point.