Gareth Bale’s relationship with Real Madrid is a difficult one to decipher. In so many ways, the Spanish giants have, more than once over the past two years or so, attempted to show that they are better off without the Welshman, without the most expensive player in the club’s history. And yet time and time again, Bale shows that to be incorrect.
While the 28-year-old has spent much of the season injured, or recovering from injury, he has developed a knack for coming to Real Madrid’s rescue. He did it in the Copa del Rey, when the capital side were on the brink of crashing out to lower league opposition. And he did it in the Club World Cup, sparing his team’s blushes against UAE underdogs Al Jazira. Real need Bale more than they care to admit.
Perhaps the sense of malaise around Bale’s career in the Spanish capital to date has its roots in a collective frustration – frustration that the Welsh winger isn’t able to find a level of consistency to his performances. Frustration that the guy signed to be the heir to Cristiano Ronaldo hasn’t quite lived up to that billing so far.
It’s why, every so often, speculation is sparked over the potential sale of Bale, invariably to Manchester United. Regardless of the source, a headline linking Bale with another club prompts discussion among the Real Madrid support, a fanbase with has never truly embraced the former Spurs man.
Now, though, they must learn to love Bale. Real Madrid needs him. 14 points short of Barcelona at the top of La Liga, Zinedine Zidane finds himself at a crucial juncture in his tenure of the club. He must find a way to turn around Real’s season and manage the decline of Ronaldo and Karim Benzema, who are both entering the twilight of their respective careers.
Bale could be a catalyst for a much stronger second half of the season. He brings something something Real Madrid are in desperate need of at present – energy. With Benzema and Ronaldo leading the line, Zidane’s side have simply become too predictable. They need someone to stretch the pitch, create space for others and share the goalscoring burden.
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In the absence of Bale, Zidane has tried using Lucas Vazquez for these qualities, but the 26-year-old doesn’t have the natural goalscoring instinct of Bale. Isco became a fan favourite, and a key figure, last season, pushing Bale out of the first team, but the playmaker has only contributed to making Real Madrid a sluggish, ponderous outfit this term. Not even Marco Asensio has managed to revitalise their frontline. They need something different. They need Bale.
One wonders how the trajectory of Real Madrid’s season so far would have been altered had Bale been fit. When he has played, he has impressed, even when match sharpness has evaded him. This team is in transition, with the Galacticos of the past decade making way for young, homegrown talent. But Bale links the two generations. There is both symbolic and practical significance to that.
As demonstrated in the mid-week Copa del Rey win over Numancia, in which Bale scored, he is nearing full fitness again. There’s a speed to his play that has been missing for quite some time. A focus to his first touch, a sharpness to his finishing. In fact, since returning to the fold in late November, Bale has two goals in just five appearances, with many of them coming from off the bench.
Real Madrid have spent much of the season treading water, trying the same things in the hope that something will change. That approach hasn’t worked, at least in La Liga. Zidane surely recognises the need to shake things up as Real Madrid look to claw back some of the difference on Barcelona. Bale might not be loved in Spain, but he’s needed more than ever before.