Sunday was a day of unfamiliar experiences for Gareth Bale. Firstly, he suffered his first loss of the season. Secondly, it came while wearing the armband.
No shame in losing to Denmark, a side that World Cup finalists Croatia need penalties to beat this summer. Christian Eriksen won the duel of team talismans, scoring twice on a day where Bale seemed to be trying a little too hard to make his mark.
It’s understandable. The chance to captain your country doesn’t come around every day, and Wales manager Ryan Giggs giving that opportunity to Bale was a sign of how far the Real Madrid star has come in such a short time since the summer, when his club future was in doubt even after he’d scored a wonderful bicycle kick in the Champions League final.
Offered the chance to step out of the shadow of Madrid’s greatest ever player, and given the backing of his new manager Julen Lopetegui, the Welshman has been starring for his club, scoring in each of his team’s opening three games of the La Liga season.
He added another goal for Wales last week as they beat Ireland, and though he’ll be disappointed that his scoring streak ended on Sunday, there’s a definite sense that Bale is relishing being centre-stage in a way that he has only fleetingly been since leaving Tottenham in 2013.
Since then, there’s been a sense that he was a cut below the elite. When the Real Madrid vs Barcelona rivalry was boiled down to ‘BBC’ vs ‘MSN’, there was no doubt that Ronaldo and Lionel Messi were equals and Karim Benzema had built enough of a reputation as a striker that he could match up to Luis Suarez. Bale vs Neymar? It’s still a slightly unfair comparison now, but two or three years ago it was absolutely far-fetched.
And, of course, his injury history during his time in Madrid has left his own fans rather disappointed with him. A few months ago the Santiago Bernabeu was booing him and fans were calling for him to be sold – and the club were considering it. But he’s certainly got the home crowd on his side now.
There was Euro 2016, of course, where he was the clear star player in a Wales side that surpassed all expectations by reaching the semi-finals, but even then, his narrative was engulfed in the larger story of a plucky Wales side conquering everyone before them.
Now, however, Bale is the story.
When Ronaldo left, questions about Bale followed Lopetegui around all summer. Could he step up? Would he finally be a true star, rather than just a glamorous support act, with a few moments of stealing the limelight interspersed between long spells of disappointment.
Lopetegui always answered in the affirmative, and Bale is repaying his manager’s faith. The player Madrid have seen so far this season is one who hasn’t often shown up at the club. He’s delivered some outstanding moments, to be sure, but this is a Bale playing with confidence.
It helps that he knows his spot in Lopetegui’s starting XI is secure, something he could never be sure of under Zidane.
That confidence is translating to form on the pitch, where he’s got four goals and two assists in six games for club and country this season. But the biggest way his confidence is improving his game is the way it’s getting people to place their confidence in him.
Lopetegui trusts him to be the star player for one of the biggest clubs in the world. Giggs trusts him to be his captain.
Finally, Gareth Bale has arrived.
Hola Madridistas. Welcome to Monday’s Real Madrid blog.
Alex Broun and the rest of the Sport360 team will be here throughout the day, bringing you the latest Los Blancos news, views and gossip.
13:00 – Awards ‘not an objective’ says Varane after FIFA, UEFA snubs
Real Madrid and France defender Raphael Varane says he is unbothered by snubs which saw him left out of the final three-man shortlists for both the UEFA and FIFA awards for best men’s player.
In 2017/18, Varane became just the ninth player to win the Champions League and World Cup in the same season, starring for Madrid as they won Europe’s premier club trophy for a historic third time and then guiding a solid France defence in their triumph in Russia.
11:00 – Real Madrid track Napoli star Zielinski
Real Madrid have joined Liverpool and Manchester City in the hunt for highly-rated Napoli midfielder Piotr Zielinski, reports Calciomercato.
The 24-year-old was a vital cog in the Partenopei machine last season, netting seven goals in 47 games in all competitions.
His impressive showings in Serie A led to interest from Los Blancos, as well as Liverpool and Man City, but Napoli remain adamant that the player is happy at Stadio San Paolo.
9:00 – Zidane hints at return to management
Zinedine Zidane has hinted that he is set to return to management soon.
The former France star resigned from his position as Real Madrid boss after leading Los Blancos to a third successive Champions League crown at the end of May.
But he told Spanish broadcaster TVE that he plans to be back in the game shortly.
The former Real Madrid boss is reportedly high on the short list to take over from the Portuguese at Old Trafford if current results do not improve.
Mourinho has endured a battling few months at the Red Devils, with high profile spats with executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward over transfers and on-going drama with want-away Paul Pogba.
On the field, United have made a disastrous start to the Premier League campaign with shock defeats to Tottenham and Watford, although the last up win against Burnley lifted spirits until Pogba plunged the club into more uncertainty.
Zidane is on high alert to arrive at United despite reports Woodward is still backing the manager and awaiting to see how the side progress in the Champions League.
The French legend has been out of management since departing the Bernabeu following his third straight Champions League title.
The Mirror speculates that Zizou has already begun compiling a list of targets he would like to transfer to United if he were to take over the helm, which of course would include a number of his former Real stars.