Returning Gareth Bale ready to cement his status in Madrid's vanguard
Gareth Bale is going back to England. It's a line you've probably read quite a lot over the past three years, only this time it is true. On Tuesday night Bale plays at a Premier League ground for the first time since he left for Real Madrid in 2013, but it will be for one night only. If there have been moments of doubt for the world's most expensive player, if the pull of home never entirely goes away and the demands never diminish, he is more settled in Spain than ever.
More integrated, confident and appreciated, fit again after a minor calf strain saw him left out of the victory over Villarreal as a precaution, Bale heads back to face Manchester City searching for a second Champions League winner's medal. Madrid are back in the title shake-up. And as for Bale, he is a man for Manchester City to fear, one who has scored 19 goals - including two in yesterday's 3-2 win over Rayo Vallecano - and provided 10 assists this season.
Nothing unusual there: Bale got 22 goals in his first season, 17 goals in his second. By any objective measure, he has been a success. He scored the winning goal in the Copa del Rey and European Cup finals, scored in the final of the Club World Cup and provided an assist for Ronaldo in the European Super Cup final. A goal against Sevilla last month made him Britain's highest scorer in La Liga history.
Yet doubts lingered; so too uncertainty. Statistics were one thing, sensations another. At Madrid, where there is more than just football to contend with, the on-field demands and off-field difficulties are considerable - especially for a foreigner used to a different game. Reports of rejection were wrong and too much was made of timid whistling of him in a stadium that has whistled everyone from Alfredo Di Stefano to Zinedine Zidane, but it was true that life was not perfect.
"Relax, Bale is playing well: he is having a fantastic season," Carlo Ancelotti said. That was in early 2015 and the fact that Madrid's then manager felt the need to say so was telling. "Last year was a difficult one for me," Bale admitted recently. After Madrid's Champions League semi-final defeat last May, his agent Jonathan Barnett complained: "Gareth's career is suffering because his team-mates do not pass to him."
It was an argument supported with statistics and one that hinted at internal politics. There was no confrontation as such but there was distance between him and Cristiano Ronaldo, two different personalities occupying the same space. Bale was "pissed off", Barnett admitted. "Most would have been broken by this but he's determined," he said. "He could have screamed or shouted or knocked on the manager's door but he doesn't want to upset anyone."
There may have been no knock at the manager's door but there were conversations, during which the president Florentino Perez insisted he would never sell Bale - he was the future of Madrid, their franchise player, a Ballon d'Or winner in the waiting. When Rafa Benitez took over, among his first tasks was to visit Bale in Wales to discuss a new position behind the forwards.
Few in Spain saw Bale as a No 10 but it was a role he welcomed and one that could work for him. During 2013, Madrid's former assistant coach Paul Clement had outlined the differences between Ronaldo and Bale in a way that suggested as much. "Gareth tends to come in between the lines a little bit more. Cristiano is very direct in his style, whereas Gareth will come inside, play combinations with others, look to slide balls in to team-mates," he said. It might suit him, in other words.
Whether it suited others was a different matter. Some saw an attempt to thrust Bale centre stage to the detriment of Ronaldo, not just a footballing decision but a political one. Along with Karim Benzema, Bale was Madrid's best outfield player in the first half of this season, taking greater responsibility. Benitez found a listener and a worker; as Clement had put it, he is "coachable". Collectively, though, Madrid struggled and Benitez's relationship with some in the dressing room and the boardroom was deteriorating.
As the pressure built, Bale supported Benitez, believing they were making progress and that cliques had been broken down. He told the club that they should back him. The day Benitez was sacked, replaced by Zidane, the Welshman was among the very few players to be upset and the only one to say so publicly. He was concerned that progress would be reversed and he'd return to the wing. Worse, the left wing. He has made no secret of his preference to play with freedom.
"I understand Gareth can have been annoyed with Benitez going because he was an important coach for him but he's going to have the same affection [from me]," Zidane insisted at his presentation. "He's fundamental; he's phenomenal and what he has been doing recently is fantastic. I'll give him all my support so he plays well."
On Zidane's debut four days later Bale scored a hat-trick against Deportivo La Coruna, departing to a standing ovation. It was his second hat-trick in four games and took him to 10 goals in seven. At that stage, no player had provided as many assists either. AS called him "colossal", while Marca went for "fabulous," veteran match reporter Santiago Segurola writing: "Bale produced his best game at Real Madrid, as good as any of those [produced] by the great stars of this club."
For some in Bale's circle, that recognition was overdue. "I had a very good relationship with Rafa [and] it was a big disappointment to see him go," Bale admitted that night. "But you're professional and you get on with it. You can never predict what happens in the future but I'm enjoying my football at the moment so I'll keep going."
The message has become less ambiguous since and there has been a confidence about the way Bale has expressed himself, something he is doing more often. He it was who appeared in the press conference before the clasico, a match in which he made the winner against Barcelona and while he had a goal of his own disallowed, he has continued to score under Zidane. Although he has returned to the wing, it has usually been to the right and with freedom. And while he remains most dangerous with space, he also believes he has adapted to Spain's more technical, tighter style.
"Football is different in the Premier League; it's more end-to-end and there's much more space. I understand the play [here] better now. I'm improving all the time. Last year was a difficult year for me," he said.
Adaptation comes off the pitch too. When his daughter Nava Valentina was born recently, it was in Spain, not back in the UK. His Spanish is slowly improving, he has built a relationship with team-mates, particularly his former Tottenham colleague Luka Modric, Toni Kroos and Dani Carvajal, is closer to club captain Sergio Ramos than ever before and if he has a sense that the Real players look upon him differently now, he sees them differently too. "Maybe in the past we haven't all worked as one but now we're working as a team," he admitted.
Put in simple terms, he is happier now. If Barnett called Bale "pissed off" but "determined" a year ago, when he was asked about his client a fortnight ago in Madrid, his response was different: "He loves it here."
As for Zidane, he says: "Gareth's an important player. My relationship with him is very good because he's a straightforward kid and his Spanish is improving every day. It's difficult playing in a foreign country [but] I've felt more settled this year," Bale said. "I've felt more involved in the team and that's helped my performances on the pitch."
There lies the rub, the one nagging doubt: there, in those last three words. "On the pitch." Some 19 goals and 10 assists in 19 league starts is an even more telling statistic than it may first appear; because if 19 and 10 are impressive numbers, that second 19 is a worrying one. Bale has missed 13 league games and played just 46 per cent of the minutes in all competitions before yesterday, denying him the continuity he needs to cement his status.
"It has been a bit of a frustrating season," he admits, yet it could end as a glorious one. Last Saturday he scored against Getafe only to be withdrawn as a precaution, missing the next match against Villarreal. It did not go unnoticed that he had played golf on the Sunday, sparking some criticism. But if Gareth Bale was missing on Wednesday, he was back and scoring at Rayo yesterday and he will be back on Tuesday too: back in England for the first time in three years and for one night only.
Sunday Indo Sport