Bale facing crossroads in Cardiff for Madrid future
It hasn't been lost on anyone that Real's good form has come while the Welsh star is injured
It should be his symbolic crowning moment as a player, and at 27 years of age the peak period of his career, but the build-up to the 2017 Champions League final is instead developing into something of an anxious time for Gareth Bale.
Because, about an hour after Real Madrid had confirmed their place in the Cardiff showpiece with the 4-2 aggregate defeat of Atletico Madrid - and close to the end of the post-game press conference - Zinedine Zidane was eventually asked about the absent star who will be returning home for the occasion. The Bernabeu boss stated Bale is still recuperating from his calf injury suffered in the 3-2 defeat to Barcelona at the end of April, and reiterated his hope that there would be enough time for him to be fit.
Deeper "I hope he's ready before and I hope he can be with us more than anything," Zidane said. "We're a better team when he plays."
Many around the club are beginning to doubt that, though, and the issue may well run deeper than whether Bale is fit enough. It's also whether he fits Zidane's reshaped team well enough.
It says an awful lot about Real's immense strength in depth that the absence of the second most expensive player ever and previous transfer record holder was barely noticed at any point during their semi-final with Atletico, and only really represented an afterthought because of the location of the final.
It also drives a growing debate around the defending European champions, and gives Zidane a big decision as they seek to historically retain the trophy. If Bale is fit enough, does he go with the Welsh star or Isco? That is what it comes down to. That may well be what the winning of the final comes down to, especially against a defence as good as Juventus'. Zidane needs his attack at its maximum possible level against that brilliant backline, but there is a growing evidence that can only happen with Isco in the side rather than Bale.
That is as much Bale's problem as the calf injury, really: the pronounced impact of the Spanish playmaker in his absence. Even beyond his symbolic clinching goal at the Vicente Calderon, Isco just knits the attack together so neatly, and in a way that can't really happen with Bale's more direct running.
As difficult as the Welsh star's sheer power is for any defender to deal with when he plays, it's equally difficult to escape the perception that Real also look much more like what they are often accused of being: a collection of extremely expensively and talented individuals… but not a true collective.
Real are ultimately much more dependent on individual moments of inspiration - that Bale can of course provide in abundance - rather than their concerted team ideal, when he is in the team.
This is not Bale's fault, of course. In most other top sides in the world, he would easily be the main man, and represent the focal point of such a collective. Because of the players available to Zidane and the fact a historic talent like Cristiano Ronaldo demands the team be built in a certain way, though, Bale does not quite have a natural role in the team. It is often like he is being shoe-horned in.
That is not the case with Isco. He has an obvious place. Given the drastic difference in Real's fluidity when the 25-year-old is in the side, it is actually almost as if he was deliberately designed to pin this specific arrangement of players together. He is that effective.
The decision on whether he plays could well affect this final more than anything.
Conspiratorial Some of the more conspiratorial voices around the Bernabeu also feel that it could represent something of an acid test on Zidane's will as a manager, or even Bale's future. If he plays, they feel it represents bending the side to the most expensive signings. If he doesn't, it could well mean Real are willing to sell. That is all conjecture and hearsay.
What is not conjecture and hearsay is that Real president Florentino Perez remains a massive admirer of Bale, but that other influential figures amid the Bernabeu hierarchy feel the recent team performances might mean it is time to sell him and thereby fund bigger purchases elsewhere. Manchester United are known admirers. Cardiff could yet end up Bale's farewell game, then… or it could still represent his arrival at his absolute peak.
Nothing is yet certain and who would bet against him doing what he did in Lisbon against Atletico in his debut Real season and banishing all doubt by scoring the key winning goal? Before any such big moments, though, a big decision will have to be made.
Independent News Service