It was just after the hour mark of Real Madrid's clash with Villarreal on Sunday night and Cristiano Ronaldo stood over a dangerously-positioned free-kick. Madrid led 1-0 thanks to Ronaldo's penalty just ten minutes before and the Portuguese star had been handed a good chance to double his side's lead after Marcelo had been fouled on the edge of the box. He was poised, with his famous stance that brings with it the camera flashes from around the Santiago Bernabeu.
It was an anti-climax. Another one. The 30-year-old failed to trouble Sergio Asenjo in the Villarreal goal and it was not the first time in the match. In first-half stoppage time Ronaldo lined up another free-kick, this time further out. It was the same result with the visiting goalkeeper watching the shot sail harmlessly off target.
Those cameras still flash when Ronaldo sets up a free-kick but it has been a while since anybody pictured a set-piece goal from the former Manchester United man. Almost a year. The last time he fired a free-kick into the back of the net was at the Allianz Arena last April with the final goal in Madrid's 4-0 trouncing of Bayern Munich, tucking a low shot under the jumping Bavarian wall.
Going into Sunday's match Ronaldo had failed with his previous 50 free-kick attempts. Of the 50, 21 had been blocked, 13 had been fired off-target and 16 were either saved by the goalkeeper or hit the woodwork. Not the kind of record associated with Real Madrid's lead man when it comes to free-kicks and this season's most lethal attacker in world football.
Since Ronaldo's last goal from a direct free-kick, Gareth Bale has found the back of the net from a set-piece and even defender Sergio Ramos, third on the list of free-kick takers at the club, has enjoyed success with a splendid strike in a 1-1 draw against Valladolid towards the back end of last season. In short, Ronaldo has struggled hugely with free-kicks, especially over the last year, and Bale must be wondering exactly what he has to do to take over the responsibility.
The Welshman's superb free-kick in the 3-0 victory over Espanyol was a reminder that although questions hang over his performances in open play, he is a dab hand when it comes to set-pieces.
His share has, at least, improved. In his first season in the Spanish capital Ronaldo was first up and Bale would only get a shot if his team-mate allowed him - and those occasions were rare. Now he is afforded more opportunities. "We have tactical meetings," Bale told Spanish radio recently. "If it's on the left it's Cristiano's, and if it's on the right it's mine. We know more or less who's going to hit each one."
Ronaldo's free-kick success ratio has never matched the rest of his scintillating goalscoring exploits but his performance from set-pieces has notably dropped in recent campaigns. During his days at Manchester United he took 164 shots from free-kicks with a return of ten goals according to the Daily Mail, a conversion rate of 6.1 per cent. That rate lags behind stars such as David Beckham, Thierry Henry and Juan Mata but also Sebastian Larsson, Nolberto Solano and Laurent Robert.
That famous stance used to bring fear to opposition defences but not anymore. Ronaldo's drop in form from set-pieces is such that any shot on target seems to be the exception rather than the rule. A fan in the stands is more likely to pick up the ball than the goalkeeper.
So why the drop in form? During his days in the Premier League, Mark Hughes, then manager of Manchester City, saw it coming. The former Barcelona player was in awe of the way Ronaldo took free-kicks but back then he believed the way in which he struck them would not allow long-term success - and he seems to have been proven right.
"The way Ronaldo strikes the ball from free-kicks is a completely different technique to anyone else I have ever seen," he told Sky Sports in 2009. "It is an outstanding talent that causes big problems for goalkeepers - but Ronaldo himself might one day find there are consequences as well.
"It is such an unnatural movement and I wonder whether he will be able to maintain that technique throughout his career without causing himself some damage." He added: "It is something that could cause problems, so he will have to build a lot of strength into his thighs and in the muscles around the knee."
Ronaldo endured plenty of knee problems in the second half of last season and although those problems have yet been forthcoming this season, reports and rumours of everything far from being 100 per cent with his knee will not go away. While his "unnatural" method of striking free-kicks may not be the cause of the injury problems, a troublesome knee does not lend itself well to the way Ronaldo strikes the ball from set-pieces.
The trouble is that despite his poor record, Ronaldo will not let his free-kick opportunities go lightly. They present him with a good opportunity to find the back of the net and bag that crucial goal in the goalscoring battle with Lionel Messi. He will not pass up those opportunities easily and he is still the player with all the power at Madrid. A request from Bale for more responsibility from set-pieces will most likely be met with short shrift.
However, it is not a good position for Madrid to find themselves in. Madrid win more free-kicks than most around the penalty area owing to their usual dominance in matches and the struggles of their opponents to stop their freescoring nature. However, heading into February, Los Blancos had scored just one of 47 direct free-kick attempts, according to AS, and that one came from Bale.
It is time for Ronaldo to bite the bullet and for Ancelotti to be stern in allowing the former Tottenham Hotspur man more opportunities from set-pieces around the box. In a season where the differences are fine and where competitions will go down to the wire, every free-kick and every goal counts. With the players available, Madrid should be a much bigger threat than they currently are from free-kicks.