Gareth Bale must find way to get along with Real's leading man
Gareth Bale will face Juventus tomorrow with the eyes of the world on him, his every touch under scrutiny and his future at Real Madrid still in doubt. Never before will a heat map be so eagerly anticipated as Bale prepares to resume battle with the Italians in the second leg of their Champions League semi-final.
The rematch at the Bernabeu is already being talked about as Bale's shot at redemption, after a disappointing performance in Turin that had pundits and critics lining up to take aim.
Even Bale must have been surprised by the levels of criticism he has received this season, with every low-key performance heightening speculation that he will be heading back to the Premier League.
Bale is not the most demonstrative of footballers and supposed body language experts are claiming that he has the demeanour of a man agonising for a move away. But there are clearly other reasons for this so-called second-season syndrome. For a player so richly talented as Bale, there must be explanations for his current predicament.
His agent, Jonathan Barnett, even said this week that his problems were exacerbated by the fact that his team-mates did not pass to him enough.
"Real have to work with Gareth and pass the ball to him more. Give him the ball and let him show everybody what he's good at," Barnett said. "He's going to be the best player at Real Madrid when his team-mates work with him and help him. Hopefully Real will come to terms with this."
What Barnett did not specify was which players, but you can guess that Cristiano Ronaldo and possibly Isco would figure rather prominently.
Carrying that tag as the most expensive footballer in history must be an incredible burden for Bale, but trying to operate in the same team as Ronaldo must be even harder.
Ronaldo is the main man at Madrid, the only player capable of coming close in pub debates to challenging Lionel Messi as the best in the world. He is also human, as he proved on Saturday when he missed a crucial penalty in the 2-2 draw against Valencia.
However, there is a growing sense that Ronaldo and Bale cannot flourish in the same team, at least while Real Madrid's whole attacking ethos is geared towards the Portuguese superstar.
There was that moment earlier this year when Bale missed a pass to his team-mate and the cameras homed in on Ronaldo, arms dramatically outstretched with a few swear words thrown in for good measure.
Yet it highlighted the pressure Bale is under in Madrid, to play the supporting cast member and indulge the leading man.
It is unwise to tweak the ego and there remains a feeling that Bale's move in 2013 from Tottenham, for such an extravagant fee, put Ronaldo's nose out of joint.
They do get on, but it would be overstretching it to say they are close. Bale could not be more different than Ronaldo - when he cupped his ears after scoring against Levante it was the first genuine sign the criticism had got to him, and surprised people who know him.
Both players are not going anywhere any time soon so, quite simply, Bale has to find a way to adapt. Or maybe, as Barnett says, Real's players have to.
Even the best players in the world need service and assurances that they have a crucial role in the team and Bale is no different. He touched the ball less than goalkeeper Iker Casillas last Tuesday but covered more ground than Ronaldo so it would suggest there are indeed issues.
There will certainly be added scrutiny tomorrow night, but Bale has a chance to prove that he is one of the world's best players. As one of the few British players to succeed abroad in recent times, an emphatic response would be a positive example. (© Daily Telegraph, London)