Another Real Madrid game, another outstanding performance from Gareth Bale. Against Roma on Wednesday, the Welshman scored his fifth goal in seven games for club and country this season but – more importantly – he was strong, fast, decisive and indispensable to the team.
Much has been made of the man-management skills deployed by Zinedine Zidane when dealing with the super-egos that inhabited the Real Madrid dressing room during his tenure at the Santiago Bernabeu.
Unfortunately, there was precious little evidence of these skills in the Frenchman’s relationship with Bale.
When Zidane stunned everyone by announcing his resignation from the club following his third Champions League win on the bounce, players, directors and supporters formed an orderly queue on social media outlets to heap praise and adulation onto the departing coach.
Bale’s silence on the matter was as deafening as it was understandable.
The Welshman never actually fell out with Zidane because to fall out with someone you have to have some kind of contact with them. The truth is that Zidane, for whatever reason, hardly spoke to Bale at all.
Other players, especially Cristiano Ronaldo, enjoyed far more of Zidane’s attention. Bale was left with no choice but to adapt his game to support these others. With Ronaldo now gone, he has been unchained on the pitch. He is expressing himself and feeling important and valued, just as he always has done when playing for Wales.
For someone as guarded and shy as Bale, this was fundamental to his game. Both Luka Modric and Toni Kroos – and their respective families – have tried to get close to him but he is a person that likes to keep himself to himself and be surrounded only by his very dearest.
His poor Spanish-speaking skills have not helped him from a social aspect. After five years in Madrid, he still does not feel confident enough to speak Spanish in public – despite understanding most of what is said to him.
On the field, though, nobody can doubt his tremendous qualities.
He is a player of ‘moments’ who, given the space, time and the right ball, can be relied upon to do something spectacular. However, all his former coaches have privately felt that he needs to be more consistent.
Yet what many failed to appreciate, least of all Zidane, is that consistency comes from being given responsibility and regular game time – something which ‘Zizou’ rarely afforded him.
Despite featuring in the squad for nine Champions League matches last season, he was only in the starting line up on three occasions. He played a total of just two hours’ football between the last 16 first-leg home tie against PSG and the final against Liverpoolsome six matches later.
But as the old saying goes, “Cometh the hour, cometh the man.”
Bale admitted himself that he was “angry” at missing out on a starting place in the Champions League final against Liverpool in May but he more than made up for this disappointment with a stunning 30-minute cameo off the bench.
He scored two goals, one of which is considered by many as the greatest ever strike in Champions League final history – even better than that goal from Zidane at Hampden Park in 2002.
Immediately after the final, Bale told a pitch-side reporter: “Obviously, I need to be playing week-in, week-out and that hasn’t been happening this season, for one reason or another.
“I had a five-week injury at the start of the season and I’ve been fit ever since. I’ll have to sit down in the summer and discuss it with my agent and take it from there.”
We have a phrase in Spanish which translates as, “If you want it any clearer, add water.” What Bale, who has won four Champions League titles with the club, was saying to Real Madrid was ‘Use me or lose me.’
Needless to say, Ronaldo was not about to let Bale steal his thunder. Shortly after Bale’s interview, Ronaldo expressed his own discontent and the desire to leave unless Madrid were prepared to show him the “respect” (money) he felt he was entitled to.
The trophy celebrations that followed at the Bernabeu were embarrassing, and simultaneously indicative of the problems the Welshman had been facing. Despite his double strike, all the focus was instead on Ronaldo as the crowd chanted for him to stay: “Ronaldo, quedate! (Ronaldo, stay!)”
And then the unthinkable happened. Zidane quit.
From the moment that Zidane announced his departure, Bale knew that things were now going to be different. The subsequent exit of Ronaldo – and the extra space this provided for Bale – was the icing on the cake.
A planned meeting between Bale’s people and Real was not rushed because it had been rendered unnecessary. Bale was clearly now poised to be one of the most – if not THE most – important element of the new Madrid project.
And so far, this has proved to be true. In five games this season for Madrid, he already has four goals and three assists.
New coach Julen Lopetegui is very impressed with him and told me recently that Bale is training and working with all the enthusiasm of a youngster.
Lopetegui also understands that, by nature, Gareth is a ‘hammer’ player – decisive at key moments – but the player is ready to show that he is more than that and can be the leader of Real Madrid.
The distance the public feels towards a player who has not fully adapted culturally to his surroundings means it is easy for Bale to be criticised in Spain. The lack of understanding of his value starts in the media and that moves logically to the stands.
Looking at it with Spanish eyes, it is generally far easier to admire Benzema’s type of game. The way the Frenchman links the midfield to attack – and his regular contribution to the build-up – is appreciated more by the Spanish when it comes to an attacker. Bale, as the hammer, is viewed unfairly in a less favourable light.
But he is not under-appreciated by Lopetegui. Unlike under Zidane, there is a connection and dialogue between coach and player.
Another stick that has often been used to beat Bale in the past is his injury record. The 29-year-old has endured a catalogue of injuries over his career.
During his time at Madrid he has missed a total of 300 days and 61 games. But he has not suffered an injury now since November of last year.
Indeed, having been unshackled by the exits of Zidane and Ronaldo, this could be Bale’s greatest ever season with Real Madrid… if he can remain injury free.