Over the last 12 months, several football stars have shone bright.
Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have continued to operate in a world of their own; Isco was brilliant in Real Madrid’s double- winning run-in; Kylian Mbappe exploded onto the scene in the Champions League; rising star Paolo Dybala and veterans Gigi Buffon and Dani Alves excelled for Juventus, and, Neymar made history with a world record transfer.
Many more names would be worthy in that list of the world’s best players, but there is one notable absentee: Gareth Bale.
In the relentlessly ruthless world of elite football, he is now in danger of suffering a severe loss of status.
The 2016/17 season was a poor one for Bale, partly because he entered it physically and mentally exhausted by his sterling performances for Wales during last summer’s European Championships, when he manfully bore the weight of a nation of his shoulders.
A few months later, as Real Madrid accelerated towards the finishing line in their ultimately glorious quest for a league and European double, Bale was nowhere to be seen. The Welsh winger missed the last few weeks with the latest in a long line of injuries, and the most concerning thing was that his absence didn’t even matter.
In fact, Madrid played their most convincing football for many years while Bale was on the sidelines, with Marco Asensio and Isco making the most of their opportunities to shine and Zinedine Zidane implementing a new winger-less formation which makes it difficult to see where Bale could fit in.
Gareth Bale's LaLiga record for Real Madrid:— Squawka Football (@Squawka) August 7, 2017
92 starts 🏃
54 goals ⚽️
33 assists 🅰️
Involved in a goal once every 89.9 minutes. 👊 pic.twitter.com/713PVQkB1s
The upshot is Bale is becoming a peripheral and unnecessary figure and, when you take into account his astronomical wages and expectations for extended playing time, an unwanted burden.
Madrid’s likely signing of Mbappe this summer would shunt Bale further down the pecking order, and the question of his continuity at the club has become a genuinely hot topic for the first time since he arrived in 2013.
If he does leave, one potential destination looks far more likely than any other, and Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho’s confession on Monday that he would like to sign the Welshman was nothing more than the revelation of an open secret.
So the timing of Tuesday’s UEFA Super Cup between Bale’s current employers and his probable next home could not be more intriguing, but Mourinho’s statement that the winger being selected would indicate he is not available for sale is somewhat misleading.
Even if Bale does play from the start, it will be in the knowledge that neither Cristiano Ronaldo (only just returned to training) nor Mbappe (not yet signed) will be there. Once they are both in place, two from Tuesday night’s starting XI will obviously have to make way, which means that being picked in Skopje does not necessarily reveal Zidane’s long-term plans.
A match-winning performance from Bale, however, would be a different matter. If he can roll back time and deliver the kind of show-stopping display which has made him an unquestioned starter at the Bernabeu for the last four years, it could force Madrid’s decision-makers into a reconsideration.
After claiming three Champions League winners’ medals in the last four years, you might think he has nothing left to prove.
But, in fact, if he wants to dispel doubts about whether or not Madrid should keep him, Tuesday could be make or break.
Real Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane indicated that Cristiano Ronaldo will feature in the UEFA Super Cup against Manchester United after travelling with the squad to Skopje on Monday.
Ronaldo was surprisingly named in the reigning European champions’ group for Tuesday’s match in the Macedonian capital after only returning to training with his club over the weekend.
His summer has been overshadowed by accusations of tax evasion in Spain, which led to him appearing in court last week, and speculation over his future.
According to a report from Spanish radio station Cadena Ser, Ronaldo told the court he “would like to return to England” due to his tax troubles in Spain.
The World Player of the Year was handed an extended summer break after playing for Portugal at the Confederations Cup in Russia. He also reportedly became a father to twins in June.
But despite all that, Zidane said: “There have been a lot of things happening, a lot of noise around him as always, but he is relaxed.”
Ronaldo’s last club appearance saw him score twice in the 4-1 Champions League final win over Juventus in Cardiff in early June as Madrid successfully defended the trophy.
“What impresses me the most about him is that physically he is just as he was on the day of the final, which was two months ago now,” Zidane added at a press conference at the Philip II Arena.
“In the end that is what interests me, him and everyone else.
“The fact he is here with us means a lot because if he is with us he is here to play.”
Having not played any part in Real’s pre-season tour of the United States – which featured a defeat on penalties to United in California – it would still be an enormous surprise if the 32-year-old started in Skopje against his former club.
However, he took part in training on the Skopje pitch on Monday evening and he could get some game time as part of his preparations for the first leg of the Spanish Super Cup against Barcelona this Sunday.
“Cris is a very important member of our squad,” said skipper Sergio Ramos.
“It is important too that he travels with the team. He has a different role to any other player and his presence with us is always good, whether he plays or not.”
Zidane took his entire 24-man squad to Macedonia for the game as Madrid look to win a trophy they also claimed last year, when they beat Sevilla 3-2 in extra time in the Norwegian city of Trondheim.
Jose Mourinho is relishing the chance for his Manchester United side to test themselves against the cream of Europe again as they face Real Madrid in the UEFA Super Cup in Skopje on Tuesday.
United endured an underwhelming first season under the Portuguese manager as they finished sixth in the Premier League, but winning the Europa League allowed them to end on a high and secured their return to the Champions League.
That triumph has also led them here, to the Macedonian capital which is currently baking in summer temperatures of 40 degrees and more, as they meet Zinedine Zidane’s two-time defending European champions in the annual fixture.
The clubs have already met this summer, with United winning on penalties after a 1-1 draw in a friendly in California.
This, though, is the first official fixture of the season for both clubs, with United looking to lift some silverware before their Premier League opener against West Ham United on Sunday.
“The difference between the Champions League winner and the Europa League winner is obvious. The Europa League is difficult to win, there are lots of matches with lots of travelling, but it is not El Dorado for football players,” former Real coach Mourinho said at the Philip II Arena on Monday when asked if his team could overcome the Spanish giants.
“The top quality is obviously in the Champions League, and when you get to the semi-finals you have four of the best five or six teams in Europe. So there is a difference of quality, but we believe that it is possible.”
While Madrid won this trophy last year to make it seven Spanish victories in eight years, United’s only victory came in 1991 and Mourinho has never got his hands on it.
“This is a huge game. I don’t think you can underestimate what we’ve gone through to get to this stage,” added the veteran midfielder Michael Carrick.
Madrid are coming off one of the greatest seasons in their illustrious history as they became the first team to retain the European Cup in the Champions League era and also won La Liga — a double they had not achieved in 59 years.
They failed to win a match during pre-season, though, something that will have reminded Zidane of the need to be even more on their game than ever before in this campaign.
“I have been at Madrid for 16 years, playing and coaching, but I have also been at other clubs and playing against Madrid was amazing,” admitted the Frenchman, who was working at the Santiago Bernabeu during Mourinho’s time in charge at the start of this decade.
“This is the best team in the world. We know that every year our rivals will make life more difficult for us, and that is how it is going to be this season. But we have people who are hungry, who never tire of winning.”
Real have brought a full squad, with Cristiano Ronaldo travelling despite only starting pre-season training on Saturday following a turbulent summer. The suspended Eric Bailly and Phil Jones are among the absentees for United.
The heat could be a key factor with extremely high temperatures forecast for much of the week in this part of south-eastern Europe. It is expected to still be in the 30s come Tuesday’s 8:45pm (1845GMT) kick-off, something that could favour the Spaniards.
“I knew the weather was like this and since we came back from the USA I decided to train in Manchester every day at 4pm but it was raining very day,” joked Mourinho.
“I know in Madrid they have trained in hot weather so they are more adapted than we are but we have to play and we have to enjoy a special moment.”
Provided by AFP