What next for Gareth Bale?
After spending the summer finding himself mercilessly mocked by the Spanish media, being frozen out colder than an iceberg by Zinedine Zidane and nearly moving to China on a free transfer, the Welshman’s future has taken a sudden, dramatic and highly unexpected turn.
With no suitable buyers for his services found, Marco Asensio and Eden Hazard injured, and Paul Pogba and Neymar unsigned, the opening game of La Liga somehow contrived to thrust Bale into the starting line-up for Saturday’s trip to Celta Vigo.
Naturally, Bale responded by delivering a reminder of exactly what he is: a world class footballer. His run and cross for the opening goal, converted by Karim Benzema to send Zidane’s men on their way to a much needed 3-1 victory, was a brilliant demonstration of pace, power, poise and technique which few players on the planet could match.
And this is what Bale does. It’s what he’s done throughout his six years in Spain, which have seen him play a central role in the gathering of several major honours.
So what’s the problem?
The problem is that the issues which led to Bale nearly departing the Bernabeu in the first place have not simply disappeared. At best, they are being swept under a magic carpet in the vain hope that everybody will forget about them. That can only last for so long.
The first of those issues is that Zidane and Bale just do not get along. They never have really got along, and any relationship they did have was apparently permanently destroyed by the coach’s decision to exclude the winger from the starting eleven for 2018 Champions League Final, which ended with Bale coming off the bench to score one of the greatest goals in the competition’s history.
The next issue – closely connected to Zidane’s decision that evening – is Bale’s long list of injuries over the last few years, which have forced him to miss more than 100 games during his time in Madrid. Sure, Bale played really well in Vigo on Saturday evening, but nobody could have too much confidence that he won’t break down with another muscle strain or tear in the next few weeks.
Then there’s the fact that Bale is now 30 years old, placing him firmly among the ranks of Real’s old guard at just the time when Zidane is under pressure to usher in a new era of young stars. Bale, of course, is not alone in this category: Luka Modric, Sergio Ramos and Marcelo are also in the same boat. But it is yet another factor counting against him.
Does all this mean, then, that Bale’s reprieve from Zidane’s bad books is only temporary, and that Saturday’s splendid performance in Vigo was merely the last rays of light before the sun sets on his career in Spain?
Well, not necessarily. All the negatives outlined above can be kept pinned down under that carpet for a while, maybe even for another whole season: he might, for once, stay fit, which would restore some of Zidane’s trust, which would make the player look upon his coach more favourably, which would further encourage Zidane to delay his squad overhaul process for just a little longer.
A virtuous circle of Bale playing well, staying fit, playing better and growing ever stronger could be ushered in, and the uncertainty of the summer – which started off with the world and his wife believing Bale would never play for the club again – has taught us that we should always expect the unexpected when it comes to Real Madrid.
So the only conclusion we can really draw from Saturday’s scintillating start to the season, although it may be highly unsatisfactory, is that we can’t really draw any conclusions at all. Bale is a great player, but we already knew that.
Will he continue to be a great player for Real Madrid? Not even Bale or Zidane can answer that one.
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