Power, brute strength and a galloping stride. Three things that you expect from Gareth Bale, the archetypal modern footballer whose superb technical ability is complemented by his incredible athleticism.
But since picking up a long-term ankle problem all the way back in late November, it has been a case of false start after false start for a man used to dominating foot races. Bale has just 18 La Liga appearances to his name this season, and heads into Sunday’s Clasico against Barcelona looking to make up for lost time.
When Bale made a goalscoring return from injury against Espanyol in February, it looked like it wouldn’t be long until he was back to his best. Just over a week later, another strike helped Real Madrid to a 3-2 comeback win against Villarreal. It felt like a sign of things to come when peak physical fitness was achieved.
But since that point, Bale in his truest form has been lost. A petulant red card against Las Palmas for a stupid kick at Jonathan Viera was the first step on the decline, with that evening prefacing a six-game goalless run for club and country combined. The 27-year-old has been flitting in and out of games, with full-backs not facing up to him with the same fear they might have exhibited a year ago.
Against Atletico Madrid, the Welshman was rarely seen in the game. He then picked up another knock in the first leg of Real Madrid’s Champions League quarter-final clash against Bayern Munich in Germany. Ankle problems continue to plague him.
On that particular European night, he contributed well defensively, tracking back brilliantly to help out Dani Carvajal and provide an aerial presence in his own penalty box against Bayern’s set-pieces. But the image of Bale racing down the line at pace to beat players continues to be remembered through a rose-tinted lens.
On Thursday, Zinedine Zidane welcomed Bale back to first-team training, with El Clasico the next challenge on the agenda for his squad. Currently, Real Madrid sit three points clear of Barcelona with a game in hand. At this late stage of the season, a win for the capital club is likely to put one hand on the La Liga trophy for them.
Should Bale start or be injected into the game later on Sunday evening, the stage is perfectly set. The fans know what is at stake, as do both sets of players. Neymar is suspended for Barca – ensuring that the Welshman will have to be less conscious of protecting his full-back – and there is potential to exploit Luis Enrique’s 3-4-3 that struggles to organise itself defensively in moments of transition.
Zidane can trust Bale at both ends of the field, and this could work in his favour during a game that is set to be cagey.
Against Espanyol, the motive was to ease the former Spurs winger back into league action slowly. This weekend, it is to win at all costs. A forgettable middle third of the season will become just that if Bale rattles home a game-defining strike at Santiago Bernabeu, and he will know that better than anybody.