Euro 2016: Cristiano Ronaldo vs Gareth Bale - Real Madrid's present vs Real Madrid's future
Wales take on Portugal in the first semi-final of Euro 2016, as we inch closer to the final match of a thrilling European Championships, that has had plenty of inspirational stories on offer. Iceland have won many hearts for their rousing performances and deep run into the tournament, and Wales, of course, another nation said to have overachieved are still in France, taking on the Portuguese for a place in the final.
The Welsh have been excellent throughout, apart from a lifeless spell against England that cost them that group match, though not eventually the group leadership. Aaron Ramsey has been a dynamo in midfield, Ashley Williams has played with heart and concentration at the back and Gareth Bale has been, well Gareth Bale. He's had a great tournament but with a player of his enormous potential, you feel that he still has another gear to move towards, and what better stage than the semi-finals of the European Championships?
Portugal meanwhile had an extremely underwhelming group stage and were extremely fortunate to even qualify from the group with 3 draws from 3 games. They could yet become possibly the first team to win an international tournament without winning a match.
They weren't particularly inspirational in any of their knockout games, needing penalty shootouts to get past both Croatia and Poland, and have several players under-performing. Their fans will point out that they haven't been beaten though, and their records in major tournaments in recent times are enviable.
Ronaldo has been incredible for Real Madrid
While there are several promising players on show, it's hard to ignore the two biggest names who'll be battling against each other in this match in Real Madrid teammates Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo. The Portuguese has cemented his name in Madrid legacy with an astonishing 364 goals in 348 games for the Blancos.
On the surface, Cristiano is in as good form as ever, with 51 goals in the recently concluded season numbers that most footballers in the world would die for. Look more closely though, and you'll observe changes in his game.
At 31 years old, the Madeira native is still in marvellous shape, but he's flying past players a lot less than he used to. Apart from an impressive brace against Hungary he's been underwhelming in France and has missed the most clear cut chances of any player in the competition according to Whoscored data, and has also had the most shots in the competition without too much success.
Of course, his shot taking ability remains explosive and he could still go on to suddenly light up when it matters and carry Portugal to the Euro 2016 title, but at 31, surely there will be adjustments in his game in the future.
Bale is the rising star at Madrid
Gareth Bale meanwhile, is in the midst of the best memories of his lifetime. Wales were expected to have a tough time qualifying for the championships in the first place, and here they find themselves in the semi-finals, one step away from what seemed an impossible dream. His euphoria and passion has been well on display, and even if he is to bow out at this stage of the competition he'll have certainly done his country proud.
When Bale arrived at Madrid, the rumours were that Cristiano Ronaldo wasn't particularly thrilled at the forays the former Spurs player would make into areas that he often likes to roam in. While the media could have blown things out of proportion, it was clear that there was some tension between the two, but they went on to dispel doubts about their partnerships by going on to accumulate a staggering amount of success in the Champions League.
At 26 years old, one gets the feeling though that Gareth Bale could just about be peaking, and could slowly begin to be more central for Real Madrid as well.
Rafael Benitez tried to come in at Madrid and prioritize making Bale play more centrally, and he apparently upset the power balance in the process. He was shown the door after mixed performances from the team in any case, but one wonders if Gareth Bale could go on to play a much more prominent role for the 11 times European Champions in the future. With Ronaldo increasing playing more close to the penalty box, Gareth Bale could have a free role behind him and create havoc in opposition defences. The reason Spain star Alvaro Morata's future is in so much doubt is because Zidane, the Madrid manager might be pondering the very same thing.
In any case, right now both players will be fully focused on the semi-final at hand, and while the clash shouldn't be billed solely as a battle between the two, but a cohesive, passionate Wales outfit and a resilient Portugal team, there's no doubt that the two Madrid stars will be looking to have a more prominent role for their nations and cement their legacy in the history of the European Championships. They might also just give Zinedine Zidane, a lot to think about in the process.