Selfless Bale proving his worth to Real doubters
Generosity is usually in short supply among Real Madrid forwards. The competition is fierce, the opportunities can be fleeting, and the level of analysis often goes no further than the 'goals scored' column, so unselfishness gets you nowhere.
But as Gareth Bale goes into his first home Clasico on Sunday, it is his 17 assists – more than any other La Liga player – that have Real Madrid supporters believing he might just have been worth the world record fee.
Bale was at it again in midweek when he played a part in all three of Real's second-leg goals against Schalke in the Champions League.
The last assist was particularly telling, rolling the ball across the face of the goal to young team-mate Alvaro Morata who was so desperate to score he had snatched at an earlier gift from Bale and blazed it wildly wide.
"Big boots just keep on giving," wrote one Spanish commentator after one of Bale's size 10s had dropped a 30-yard diagonal pass on to Cristiano Ronaldo's toe to produce the only goal of last weekend's league game against Malaga that takes Madrid into this game four points clear of Barcelona.
They were six points behind their old rivals when the whistle was blown on the first Clasico of the season and Bale's outlook was far bleaker. The Welshman was taken off after 60 minutes having spent the game peppering the stands with wayward shots, falling over and picking up a caution.
Neymar had scored in that 2-1 win, back when the world believed he had cost Barcelona just £48.6m – making the £86m outlay for Bale look like a misguided indulgence.
Neymar has been pictured at Euro Disney this week with his Brazil team-mate Thiago Silva. He had been given time off as Barcelona enjoyed a seven-day break without a midweek game. He also had last Sunday off when Barcelona won 7-0 with him watching from the bench. Now coach Tata Martino is under pressure not to start him on Sunday.
As his price has risen, his impact on the pitch has declined. An investigation into his transfer has uncovered various add-on contracts that take his price close to Bale's and with Alexis Sanchez, Pedro and Lionel Messi scoring 49 goals between them – only three fewer than Madrid's BBC of Bale, Benzema and Cristiano – Martino will upset supporters if he breaks up the trio to recall the Brazilian on Sunday.
Meanwhile, Bale has slowly but surely turned things around at Real. Despite the setback of a smattering of boos greeting a misplaced pass in January at the Bernabeu, he has won fans, manager and team-mates over. He has settled in Madrid, having moved into a luxury complex La Finca where many of the other Real players live, including Ronaldo.
And he's always been ready to lavish praise on Ronaldo and play the role of the Portuguese's wingman. "I'm learning from the best," he says.
But it is the goals and assists that have really helped and Carlo Ancelotti has already said he knows his strongest team and Bale will be part of it on Sunday.
Having played all but 17 minutes in the last nine games and put behind him that midwinter period when his participation dropped below 50pc in terms of minutes played, he has put together the kind of run that those who know him well always believed he would.
Bale's former Wales manager John Toshack told the Spanish newspaper 'Marca' this week: "He's a Rolls Royce of a player and he needs to be just right to play well. He had several serious injuries when he was a very young player.
"The first one ruled him out for 10 months and the second for nine. That is a long time to be out between the age of 18 and 20.
"The treatment he had was not always the best and that is why he needs to be 100pc and can't be one of these players who can play through injury."
The idea that there were players in the dressing-room questioning what the club had seen in a player who had missed as many minutes as he had played is backed up by sources who say team-mates wondered at the reels of blue tape used to protect him from further pulls and strains.
Bale's room – No 126 – in Real Madrid's private hotel inside the club's Valdebebas training complex is the closest to the phsyio's room, just across the hall. But injuries have not written the script of his first season. Assists have instead. That and his 14 goals – more than any British player has managed in their first season in Spain.
Ronaldo has raced to 240 goals for Real Madrid – as many as Ferenc Puskas managed in his career in Spain. And Messi is on goal No 371 for Barcelona.
Bale always knew they would be impossible to upstage but he has left Neymar – the player Real Madrid lost to Barcelona – and Mesut Özil – the player Real Madrid sold to Arsenal – in his wake in the three players' first seasons at their new clubs. (© Independent News Service)