In normal circumstances, the reigning Champions League holders starting their group campaign with a routine home game against minnows APOEL wouldn’t provide much cause for interest.
But these are not normal circumstances for Real Madrid, who are heading into Wednesday night’s clash at the Bernabeu on the back of two consecutive draws at the same venue against Valencia and Levante.
And in particular, this Champions League opener is by no means just another game for one Los Blancos player: Gareth Bale.
The Welshman started the new campaign well enough by netting his team’s first goal of the La Liga season at Deportivo La Coruna and delivering a strong all-round performance in a comfortable 3-0 win.
But that all seems a long time ago now, and Bale has desperately struggled to deliver in his last two outings, with his travails contributing heavily towards Madrid’s surprise dropped points.
He was especially culpable in the 1-1 draw against Levante on Saturday, missing three extremely good chances – two close range headers and one clear run on goal – which could have secured victory.
Missing one of those chances would have been perfectly acceptable. Squandering two of them would have raised eyebrows. But the fact that he missed all three, and that they ended up proving highly costly (the same missed chances in a 4-0 win would have seemed less relevant) has placed Bale under a huge amount of pressure.
Pressure, of course, is nothing new for any Real Madrid player, and Bale has been constantly struggling to live up to the lofty expectations generated by this then-world record price tag ever since he arrived from Tottenham four years ago.
But this feels different. From the snarky media headlines to the increasing regularity of jeers and whistles of fans, it feels like patience is running out with Bale’s frustrating habit of consistently losing form for weeks on end.
When he’s good, there’s no doubt that Bale is very good indeed, and he has been single-handedly responsible for winning many matches and scoring many memorable goals during his time in Spain – none more so than the remarkable solo effort to net a late Copa del Rey final winner against Barcelona in 2014.
But he just isn’t performing at that level often enough, with his inconsistency no doubt explained by his unfortunate vulnerability to muscle strains which have regularly forced him into spells on the sidelines and disrupted his rhythm.
There’s a growing sense that enough is enough, and that Bale’s ups and downs will no longer be tolerated – especially as his presence in the team is perceived as taking up a place which could be occupied by highly popular Spaniards (Bale’s nationality, rightly or wrongly, counts against him) Marco Asensio and Isco.
This meeting with APOEL, then, takes on a much greater significance for Bale than simply a fairly low-key group stage home game – he desperately needs to play well, ideally scoring a couple of goals, to quieten the critics and boost his own confidence.
Bale’s role will be even more critical this weekend, when Los Blancos travel to red-hot Real Sociedad with the aim of getting their league form back on track.
It will be a crucial and very difficult game, and with Karim Benzema injured and Cristiano Ronaldo still suspended from domestic action (although he can play tonight), Bale will be expected to lead the line and serve as the focal point of the attack.
For that reason, Zinedine Zidane will even consider resting Bale against APOEL – with two of his strikers already unavailable for such a crucial contest, the last thing the coach needs is Bale getting injured as well.
But Zidane will also know that tonight’s game is a major opportunity for Bale, against lightweight opposition who should be beaten convincingly, to make some positive headlines and get everyone back on his side.
If Bale plays and does well, this could be the turning point he is looking for in his quest to continue being a success at Real Madrid. And he desperately needs it.