"You can say we lack a No. 9, and maybe we do," Real Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane said last week, after the club's usual centre-forward Karim Benzema was ruled out for a month with a hamstring problem, following Cristiano Ronaldo's five-game suspension for pushing a referee.
Speaking ahead of the Champions League holders' return to the competition, Zidane went on to explain that he had hoped last year's backup option Alvaro Morata would stay, and then more or less confirmed that when the Spain striker left for Chelsea he had expected a replacement to arrive.
"We would have liked Morata to stay, but he wanted to play more, to leave, and we respected that," Zidane said. "In the end we were not able to bring in another player. We must not go over it too much, as I believe a lot in [youngster Borja] Mayoral and besides Karim, we have Gareth [Bale] and Cristiano. Maybe you say they play on the wings, but we will make do with what we have, and we will do well for sure."
The No. 9 replacement Zidane had in mind was most likely French teenage sensation Kylian Mbappe, who he personally tracked for a few years and who club president Florentino Perez spoke publicly about "following" early in the summer. But after months of agonising over his future Mbappe ended up joining Paris Saint-Germain from Monaco on loan before an €180 million deal is signed next summer, surprising many Madrid fans that he spurned the Bernabeu.
Though there remains a feeling that a deal would have been done had Bale responded to public interest from Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho and returned to the Premier League.
The questions about Madrid's specialist goal scoring strength in depth followed Madrid's consecutive disappointing home draws in La Liga against Valencia and Levante. In both games Los Blancos made plenty of chances, but missed plenty too, and fans responded by whistling both Benzema and Bale at different points.
As soon as Zidane's "maybe" line came out, media outlets in Spain and elsewhere immediately cranked their rumour mills into action. The biggest splash was AS putting young RB Leipzig and Germany centre-forward Timo Werner on their cover last Monday, with the 21-year-old himself seeming happy to keep the speculation going by telling reporters in Germany that "it would be a lie to say I'm not interested" in listening to an offer from the Bernabeu
There was also a resurgence in talk about Bayern Munich's Robert Lewandowski, regularly linked to Madrid since his four goals against Jose Mourinho's side for Borussia Dortmund back in 2013. Lewandowski called the most recent talk "bulls---" but his apparent unhappiness at the Bundesliga champions' transfer policy leaves that door still potentially open.
Marca helpfully compiled a long list of other potential targets including Ajax's Kasper Dolberg, Sassuolo's Domenico Berardi, Arsenal's Alexis Sanchez, Torino's Andrea Belotti, Borussia Dortmund's Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Tottenham's Harry Kane.
Amid all this, Zidane took a gamble by giving Mayoral, 20, his first start of the season in Sunday's tricky La Liga trip to Real Sociedad. The homegrown youth product responded with an impressive all-round performance including his first senior goal -- notably the club's record-equalling 73rd in a row, which suggests they have had little problem in scoring goals of late -- and drew praise from his boss afterwards.
"Borja is young but I knew he could come in," Zidane said. "Today he had a chance to play and he showed what he could do, and I am happy for him. He did well today, not just his goal, but his movement in attack and workrate in defence."
Whether Mayoral is ready to step up regularly is far from sure, however. This was his first ever senior goal for Madrid (in his eighth appearance), and his first club goal of any kind since last February, when a 2016-17 loan season at Wolfsburg was turning sour.
It is unlikely he will be able to match the 20 goals in 43 games, many as substitute, that Morata managed last year. New Bernabeu favourite Marco Asensio is a superb talent, but at the moment is a scorer of great goals rather than a great goal scorer. And should Benzema not recover quickly from his current hamstring problems, or Ronaldo fall injured, the debate over whether Madrid need a new No. 9 is sure to open again.
Perez has the funds to move quickly, according to new financial results released last weekend. Mainly due to the €62m received from Chelsea for Morata, Madrid actually made a big profit in the latest transfer window. The club reportedly has a "cash balance" of €178m, enough to fund the purchase of [almost] any target they choose.
Ronaldo's return from suspension at home to Real Betis on Wednesday night should see Mayoral back on the bench, and the debate over an attacking back-up shelved for now. But should circumstances change between now and January, a winter move for a backup No. 9 looks likely.