Bale on verge of entering the European pantheon
Real superstar eager to join Liverpool legends with third Champions League title - and he wants more success with Wales, writes Jeremy Wilson
Gareth Bale's place among the most thrilling players in British football history is already secure but he is also now just five matches away from joining the most select group of winners in European competition.
Only eight British players have won the Champions League - or what was the European Cup - three times or more, and Bale is within sight of becoming the first from outside the legendary Liverpool team of the '70s and '80s to achieve that feat.
Real Madrid face Bayern Munich tomorrow night in a truly heavyweight quarter-final clash, with Bale's team also going for a third title in four years, as well as a double - they remain three points ahead of Barcelona in La Liga with a game in hand.
"It would be an incredible achievement, especially as no club has won the Champions League in back-to-back seasons since the new format came in," said Bale. "It would be amazing to do the double."
Yet ask Bale for his wider ambitions and, aside from winning La Liga and more Champions League titles, he instantly mentions a third dream.
After inspiring Wales to the semi-finals of Euro 2016 last year, it is to help his country write more history at the final stages of an international tournament. "You've got to aim high," he says.
To that end, Bale also now wants manager Chris Coleman to reconsider his plan to return to club football at the end of a World Cup qualifying campaign which hangs in the balance amid a sequence of four consecutive draws.
Asked if he hoped that Coleman would stay on, Bale said: "Of course. What he has done for the team and Welsh football has been amazing. He couldn't have taken on the job at a more difficult time, and what we've achieved since then has been amazing.
"We don't want to keep on looking back at the Euros. For everyone it was incredible to be a part of that and we all want that again. It would mean everything to reach Russia - we've only reached one World Cup finals before and that was back in the '50s.
"Qualification could have gone better, but we're going to do everything we can to get there. It won't be easy and there's a lot we have to do in the group now but Chris is the man who can keep us focused and positive and show us how to get the results we need."
Bale will take on some old acquaintances against Bayern Munich tomorrow.
Carlo Ancelotti was the manager when Bale scored in the final as Real won their 10th Champions League title. It was also a third Champions League for Ancelotti, who could this year break the managerial record he shares with Bob Paisley.
"He had a relaxed playing style and was very easy to play under; a very laid-back manager," says Bale.
In the centre of Bayern's midfield is Xabi Alonso, who was a team-mate of Bale at Madrid, and a player who has won everything in football for club and country.
Bale says that Alonso's on-field influence, intelligence and experience are so rare that the entire team have to adjust if he is not playing.
He is expecting an "evenly contested" game, and believes that the tie will ultimately be decided by who is most clinical in front of goal. If so, the contest between Bale, Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema and Arjen Robben, Robert Lewandowski and Franck Ribery may prove decisive.
That Bale now stands among such elevated company is a testament to his extraordinary dedication and resilience since the time, only 12 years ago, when Southampton thought seriously about not even awarding him an academy contract.
The question that Southampton staff were asking was whether he would be physically and mentally tough enough. At Tottenham, his progress was not always smooth, but he was exceptional both off the wing and through the centre in his final two seasons.
Bale believes that Spurs have laid "the foundations" to win the Premier League at some stage in the foreseeable future. "They have a great manager and a young, hungry spine to the team," he says.
For those young players who dream of following in his footsteps, he says that a willingness to absorb advice and to keep searching for continuous improvement are the keys.
"You've just got to listen to what experienced people are telling you, to what they want you to do, in training and in matches, and commit to improving every aspect of your game," says Bale.
"Now that sports science is more advanced we know that there are so many off-pitch factors that can affect how good you can become. If people are telling you to sleep a certain number of hours, eat specific foods and drink a certain volume of fluids, then you have to listen and learn."
Bale says that specific improvements for him since playing in Spain are largely related to his close control.
"I'd say that La Liga is slightly more technical than the Premier League," he says. "There's a lot of one-touch close-range passing and I think that has definitely improved my play in small areas.
"I definitely feel like I'm developing. Playing with and for the best can only help you to improve. (Zinedine) Zidane is a man that demands respect."
One specific focus has also been Bale's sleep, and a conscious attempt to regulate his habits has led to the development of an airline mattress that travels with him around Europe in order to minimise differences from his usual environment.
"The staff at Real Madrid are meticulous," says Bale. "There are smaller details like sleep that they have stressed are incredibly important. I have always been brought up with the idea that sleep is the best form of recovery.
"I've spoken to a sleep expert and they have told me to always try to go to bed and wake up at a similar time every night and morning. Getting this consistency becomes difficult when you're flying back from away night matches like the game in Munich.
"When I first met the guys at Simba I mentioned this and it prompted them to go create this prototype airline seat. They've created a bed that is just as comfortable as my bed at home."
Bale has also even analysed when his energy peaks, and is thankful for football's generally later kick-offs.
"I've never been a morning person," he says. "Apparently that's largely due to my natural body clock, which is why I naturally fall asleep and wake up at later times.
"A good night's sleep can help performance, and apparently a few restless nights may weaken your immune system and reduce power and strength, which is a key part of my game." (© Daily Telegraph, London)