From the world’s most expensive player to a potential afterthought, a curious few months lie ahead for Gareth Bale.
A summer of change seems guaranteed at Real Madrid. Where president Florentino Perez’s desires lie is difficult to ascertain as rumours swirl that Europe’s grandest club are set for their biggest outlay in four years.
Will the 28-year-old forward be cast aside in the race to land the likes of Brazil superstar Neymar, Belgium magician Eden Hazard or Egypt’s Mohamed Salah?
Is there even a market any more for a player of sublime talent who gets such frustratingly little chance to show it because of constant injury, or does the Los Blancos’ hierarchy remain committed believers in the target prised from Tottenham’s grasp for a historic fee of €100 million (Dh486.1m) in September 2013?
The Wales superstar had plenty of time, if so inclined, to ponder these issues during his marathon 7,500-mile trip from Madrid to the Chinese city of Nanning, that begun on Sunday night and ended on Tuesday afternoon.
His role with the national team remains crucial. But with his club, clarity is hard to find.
Time to bail on Bale?
After being priced out of the battles to land centre midfielder Paul Pogba and striker Kylian Mbappe in consecutive summers, media reports continually insist there will be no hesitancy from Madrid this time.
Despite already possessing the likes of Bale, Marco Asensio and Lucas Vazquez, the acquisition of a free-scoring wide forward is repeatedly rumoured.
On ability alone, Bale’s spot on the Madrid roster remains unquestioned. He’s second-top scorer behind Ronaldo on 12 goals in all competitions and is currently averaging a goal or assist every 126 minutes in La Liga.
Isco’s comparative ratio is 153 minutes, Asensio’s is 135 minutes and maligned striker Karim Benzema is on 129 minutes. Only Vazquez’s 105 minutes is a notable upgrade.
In total, he’s notched a respectable 79 times in 179 run-outs in royal white.
116 - Gareth Bale will equal David Beckham's record as the British player with the most La Liga appearances when he plays against Espanyol tonight (116 apps). Dragon. pic.twitter.com/HVr1PPguMu— OptaJose (@OptaJose) February 27, 2018
His 160th appearance in November also saw him surpass David Beckham as the record holder for Madrid appearances by a British player.
Yet, this mark should have been bettered years ago.
Bale has picked up more than 10 injuries in five seasons at Madrid. A susceptibility to calf problems, in particular, has been the bane of his Bernabeu stint.
Out of a potential 181 La Liga fixtures since his purchase, he’s missed – for a variety of reasons – 62 of them. This equates to 34.3 per cent.
When the evergreen Cristiano Ronaldo remains virtually ever-present and the likes of 22-year-old Asensio are rapidly coming up on the outside, no wonder Bale can seem like a spare part. Head coach Zinedine Zidane simply cannot rely on him.
Paltry returns on his £600,000 a week (Dh3.1m), five-year contract extension signed in October 2016 cannot be justified at this rate.
Especially when Salah has 37 goals or assists in the 2017/18 Premier League and Neymar has a combined tally of 32 in Ligue 1.
Such an injury record and sizeable remuneration makes him seem like the player Madrid would be best advised to cut.
This does not appear a simple exercise.
Out of options
Where is the market for a player of rarefied standing who rarely has the chance to show it?
It would require an unforeseeable U-turn from canny operators such as Bayern Munich and Juventus to offer an exit route.
Even if Paris Saint-Germain let Neymar and a substantial load of cash head the other way, Bale – with his age and fitness record – does not seem desirable.
‘Stupid English Money’ – as the Premier League’s spendthrift sides are mockingly labelled by those on the continent – should offer the obvious solution.
But even then, options aren’t plentiful. Perennial suitors Manchester United have invested a small fortune in 29-year-old Alexis Sanchez and manager Jose Mourinho has declared no interest in further adding to his attack.
The average current age of Pep Guardiola’s signings still at Manchester City is 24.7 years old – a figure inflated by 34-year-old Chile reserve goalkeeper Claudio Bravo.
Chelsea seem more concerned by net spend these days, his frail body is unlikely to meet the fevered demands set by ‘gegenpressing’ Jurgen Klopp at Liverpool and a return to Tottenham would shatter their protected wage structure.
Good win again tonight!! Vamos equipo ⚽ pic.twitter.com/beo9FbZqgZ— Gareth Bale (@GarethBale11) March 18, 2018
History is on his side
Agent Jonathan Barnett is renowned as one of the football industry’s most rapacious operators. All his skills would be required to pull off an escape back to the Premier League.
And there-in lies the likeliest eventuality. If he can stay fit, he has the capacity to compete with any addition at Madrid.
Fellow Brits Beckham and Steve McManaman were made persona non grata there during the previous decade. Through sheer will and an indefatigable attitude, they returned to prominence.
Lessons from history point the way to a future at Los Blancos that can still be bright, for Bale.
Athletic Bilbao goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga has revealed that the advice of his friends and family is the key reason why he snubbed a move to Real Madrid.
Various outlets in Spain had reported that the 23-year-old had all but signed for Los Blancos in January – only for him to perform a last-minute U-turn.
Kepa went on to agree a contract that keeps him tied down in the Basque country until 2025, with Real forced to turn their attentions to costlier options such as David De Gea, Thibaut Courtois and Alisson.
And two months later Kepa, who is competing for a place in Spain’s World Cup squad this summer, remains adamant that he made the right choice.
“It was a time of much reflection and the decision was one that would have shaped the direction of my sporting career,” he told El Larguero radio station.
“In the end, following advice from my family and close friends, I opted to stay. I’m happy with the outcome and look forward to serving the club for the next eight years.”
Being spoilt for choice is an usual state of affairs at Real Madrid.
The summer refit at the 12-time – it could even be 13 by then – European kings and FIFA’s Club of the Century will feature purchases exclusively from the top end of the market.
Los Blancos have cash to burn after not making a serious splash since the £63 million (Dh387.2m) purchase of Colombia playmaker James Rodriguez from Monaco all the way back in July 2014. It is safe to say this figure should be far exceeded by Florentino Perez in the feeding frenzy after this summer’s World Cup.
Expect the forward line to witness a sizeable – and eye-wateringly expensive – upgrade. With this in mind, a pair of free-scoring wide men look to be competing for the president’s desires.
A straight choice between Brazil and Paris Saint-Germain’s Neymar, 26, and Egypt and Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah, 25, is not a simple one. Here, we breakdown the decision Madrid could make.
Few players breed more fear in defenders than the aforementioned pair.
No matter the abilities of Cristiano Ronaldo, Isco, Gareth Bale, Marco Asensio and Lucas Vazquez, either would provide significant ballast.
Neymar is the brightest star of football’s greatest nation. Plus, for pure technical ability only ex-Barcelona team-mate Lionel Messi betters him and Ronaldo is, at worst, an equal match.
In Ligue 1 alone for PSG, 20 appearances have generated 32 goals or assists.
His credentials in Spain also cannot be questioned after 105 strikes in 186 matches prior to last summer’s record-shattering €222m (Dh1 billion) move.
With 53 goals in 83 international appearances, all-time-great Pele’s mark of 77 strikes should easily be surpassed before he turns 30-years old.
In the opposite corner, Salah’s switch to Anfield is creating a global superstar.
His four-goal haul against Watford on Saturday has put him on 28 goals from 30 Premier League appearances. With seven games left of his debut campaign, he’s on course to decimate the 31-goal record for a 38-match season set by Ronaldo, Alan Shearer and Luis Suarez.
Salah’s quartet also knocked Messi off the top and gave him the lead in the European Golden Shoe standings.
Not bad for a player who spends much of his time loitering on the right flank.
Neymar is the proven quantity, but Salah’s ceiling is expanding all the time. Where he ends up should tantalise Madrid.
4 - Mo Salah today became the first player to score four goals from exactly four shots in a Premier League game since Andrey Arshavin for Arsenal at Liverpool in April 2009. Awesome. pic.twitter.com/Oxhp2k0vBN— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) March 17, 2018
OFF THE PITCH
When it comes to knowing the value of any signing, Madrid have set the standard since the glamour days in the previous decade of ‘Los Galacticos’.
The policy did not work wonders on the pitch. But Perez knew how to extract value from mega buys like David Beckham, (the original) Ronaldo, Luis Figo and current head coach Zinedine Zidane.
In this regard, there is no competition at present between Neymar and Salah. According to the 2016 Forbes Highest-Paid Athletes list, the former was the only footballer to earn more from off-field endorsements – such as Nike and Gillette – than his playing contract.
In the next year’s edition, Neymar in 18th place was the third-highest ranked footballer behind Ronaldo (1) and Messi (3).
It comes as little surprise to say Salah was nowhere near the top 50. But his profile has grown exponentially since the – now bargain – £36.9m (Dh189m) transfer to Liverpool last June.
Lucrative tie-ups have been inked with Uber and Vodafone. He also has many of the estimated 450m inhabitants of the Arab world following his every move.
Yet, Neymar is a truly global phenomenon. He was ranked by ESPN as the planet’s fourth-most-famous athlete in 2016.
This disparity should only grow after World Cup 2018. Brazil are gunning for glory, while Egypt are simply hoping to exit the groups upon their return after 28 years away.
COUNTING THE COST
When Madrid come to do the maths for either purchase, they will need their calculators to have space for plenty of zeroes.
AS have reported a $400m price tag for Neymar, while The Sunday Times states the player is demanding £1m a week (Dh5.1m) to stay in the French capital.
Meanwhile, El Confidencial said last week that Liverpool are aiming to receive a minimum £140m (Dh717m) fee if Salah is sold. The ex-Basel forward currently earns £90,000 per week (Dh460,910).
With these figures in mind, Salah is by far the cheaper – if that phrase can be used for such amounts – potential buy.
If you pay the price asked for and more than treble his wages to £300,000 per week (Dh1.5m) on a five-year deal, the total operation should cost approximately £220m (Dh1.1bn).
When Neymar’s price tag and new wage demands are added together for the same duration, this figure more than doubles to roughly £545m (Dh2.8bn).
Resident talisman Ronaldo – the Portuguese version – would also bridle at such money being paid to a fresh arrival. A substantial rise way beyond his current remuneration of an estimated £700,000 per week (Dh3.6m) would surely be requested – and have to be accepted.
Even Madrid’s healthy bottom line would buckle under the weight. Yet, Neymar has an invaluable flamboyance and supreme preternatural ability to make these numbers appear acceptable.
Everywhere he’s gone, incredible performances have followed. Who could forget his decisive role when Barca pulled off one of football’s great comebacks against PSG in the 2016/17 UEFA Champions League?
He also carried the hopes of a nation on home soil when he converted the clinching penalty to see Brazil win the 2016 Olympics.
Salah has scaled some of these heights. His injury-time spot-kick against Congo ensured a spot at Russia.
But memories of his peripheral role at Chelsea remain. No such stains exist on Neymar’s CV.
1 - Neymar was the only player from the top five leagues with +20 goals (20) and assists (21) last season in all competitions. Fantastic. pic.twitter.com/9PndcsLv4x— OptaJose (@OptaJose) August 2, 2017
Neymar has experienced uninterrupted success since debuting for Santos aged 17, is a prominent name in every market and his pedigree in Spanish football is there for everyone to see.
In contrast, Salah is a coming force – with his overall price tag reflecting this status. Sharp progress at Fiorentina and Roma, after his disappointing Chelsea spell, has hit warp speed since arriving at Anfield.
He could keep on developing at a precipitous rate and justify this new standing as Messi’s heir apparent. Or, this could be a peak.
Kevin Phillips scored 30 Premier League goals for Sunderland in 1999/2000. The striker then failed to see action for England in Euro 2000 and never scored more than 18 times in a single top-flight campaign.
A repeat of this scenario, admittedly, does not appear likely. But Madrid can afford to be this selective.
If money’s no object for them, they should bank on the Brazilian.