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.