Gareth Bale the pawn as Zinedine Zidane restores authority at Real Madrid
The festering split between Gareth Bale and Zinedine Zidane came to a head on Sunday as Los Blancos completed their La Liga campaign in familiar style with a 2-0 reverse against Real Betis at the Santiago Bernabéu.
Incredibly, unthinkably, it was Real Madrid's twelfth league defeat of a hugely frustrating season, and again emphasised the scale of the task facing Zidane as he looks to rebuild and reinvigorate a club that has clearly lost its way following recent managerial changes. To put it in context, Getafe CF only lost nine games this season.
A summer of change
Inevitably, there will be significant transfer business completed during the summer months, and it now appears clear that Bale will headline the list of high-profile departures from the Spanish capital. Restored to the squad against Real Betis, Bale did not make an appearance despite his side chasing the game.
But the most damning assessment of his future followed the final whistle, and while the players remained on the field to thank the few remaining fans for their support, Bale headed straight from the home dugout and down the tunnel. It was a journey he has probably made for the very last time.
Zidane confirmed after the match that he had no intention of bringing the Welsh star off the bench, and that the club would be looking to engineer his exit before the start of next season. However, Bale remains keen to stay at the club, and his lucrative contract puts him in a position of power as Real Madrid consider cutting their losses on the player they signed for a then world-record fee in 2013.
Problems between the pair surfaced a year ago following the 2018 UEFA Champions League final. Bale was named on the bench despite finding himself in good form ahead of the match against Liverpool, and made his point with two goals to ensure Real Madrid claimed the trophy in Kiev.
However, he expressed his true feelings after the match, and it was only Zidane's resignation that kept Bale at the club for another season.
Zidane must restore order
Upon Zidane's recent return, his relationship with Bale was always going to be a huge talking point, especially as the future of the Welshman is rarely far from the daily headlines in Spain. While speculation has surrounded the general silence until now, Zidane has used the final match of the season to make a clear statement about Bale.
In fact, bringing Bale back for the match and leaving him on the bench was nothing but a calculated move to remind the world that he is no longer part of his plans.
Zidane used the opportunity to publicly humiliate Bale, and show him that he is in charge of the team, and will not be pressured by players. No doubt Bale's post-match comments following the Champions League final stayed with the Frenchman during his sabbatical.
Bale has suffered the brunt of the abuse from the Real Madrid fans for what has been a season to forget. Zidane holds kudos with the supporters for the success he achieved during his first spell as manager, and they will back his judgement of the situation ahead of Bale.
Zidane knows this, and is ensuring the pressure is firmly placed on moving Bale out of the Santiago Bernabéu.
It is a tough one for Bale to take, but a situation he has to accept. Football is a fickle game, and his incredible goals and memorable moments for the club over the last six seasons already appear to have been forgotten.
Injuries have curtailed his pace, but he still has much to offer at the very highest level, and it is time for him to accept that his time at the club is over.
Bale and the bigger picture
But it is not just about Bale. Zidane has targetted Bale as the perfect figure to ensure his authority is respected by the rest of the squad, and no player will want to be in the same position as the Welshman during this public humiliation.
Real Madrid's problems have stemmed from a lack of control and authority, and Zidane's first move must be to restore order in the changing room.
It is a fact that Real Madrid need to freshen up a forward line that has suffered since the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo to Juventus last summer. Karim Benzema and Bale have failed to fill the void, and both players are considered part of a previous era.
There are problems that must be addressed and a dynamic change in attack will be high on the list of priorities.
The end of an era
What is clear is that there is no way forward for Zidane and Bale. The public show of frustration between the pair is now irreparable, and one must leave this summer. Zidane has been entrusted with the project of starting and developing a new era of success, and he will not tolerate being undermined by player-power in the way that prompted his departure from the position a year ago.
Bale, who turns 30 in July, will have other options, and while his age and injury problems will dictate a change in contract expectations, it should be kept in context. He will remain one of the best-paid players in the world game and has a few more years left at the highest level.
Although he may wish to remain in Madrid, his situation has been made untenable by the actions of his manager. The relationship is well and truly over.