The difference between Arsenal and fourth spot: Gareth Bale
Every now and then, a wise old aristocrat takes to the dais, woos you with his charm and shifts the balance of power with relative ease. Sadly for Arsenal, Stan Kroenke or Alisher Usmanov hasn’t been that person.
As Arsenal travel to the home of their favourite adversaries this weekend, the disparity between them and the much-coveted fourth spot may only be a mere four points; that is if you take Gareth Bale out of the equation.
The Welshman has had a stellar season with Tottenham Hotspur, having scored 15 goals in the Premier League this season and earning the North Londoners an astonishing 15 points on his own. The double whammy for Arsenal – something they never saw coming even in their wildest dreams – is that their North London rivals have a far superior squad with greater strength in depth.
Even so, it’s safe to say that Spurs would be far from their quest for a place in Europe had it not been for Bale. The White Hart Lane faithful know very well that if those ambitions are not met with, their fan-fav could well get on his bike; this time for good. For that’s where he belongs, ever since he announced himself after running Maicon ragged in his own backyard and scoring that famous hat-trick against Inter in their 4-3 loss at the San Siro in 2010.
They only missed out on a place in the Champions League last season as Chelsea, who finished two places below them in sixth, did what they absolutely feared. A fourth place finish didn’t suffice and differences with Daniel Levy, the club chairman, saw Harry Redknapp’s successful reign come to an abrupt end.
Redknapp’s influence on Bale’s career is irrefutable. Taking a ‘jinxed’ left-back – who at one point went 24 league appearances without finishing on the winning side – and converting him into a supremely confident and feared winger was a stroke of genius.
That was in 2009. Today, under the tutelage of an attack-minded coach in Andres Villas-Boas, Bale is nothing short of unstoppable. The superlatives don’t seem to stop as Villas-Boas said Bale was an ‘inspiration’ to his teammates after his brilliance helped them to wins over Lyon in the Europa League and West Ham domestically.
Bale has the world at his feet.
It must be said though, the comparisons with Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi are a tad bit premature. The level of consistency these perennial foes bring is out of the ordinary; something Bale must aspire to, if he wants to be mentioned in the same breath.
He’s a match-winner alright. But he is still not as two-footed and skillful as Ronaldo and neither does he possess the close control and finesse of Messi. What he does have is a predatory instinct, a killer first touch and lighting pace to burn, that sets him apart from his contemporaries.
When Bale scents blood, he relies on the vulnerability of his opponents, his bags of pace and his lethal left foot. Be it from a set-piece or a one-on-one, he knows where the back of the net is. But he’s still quite raw, not even close from the finished article; at 23, the transformation from cub to cheetah incomplete.
That is probably the best way to describe him: an infant cheetah, who’s gradually learning how to look for prey. Earlier this season, he did just that when he scorched the Old Trafford turf and left Rio Ferdinand in his wake in the 2-3 away win against Manchester United.
Having been victim to Bale’s pace and power, Rio Ferdinand tweeted in agreement: “People mentioning Bale in the same breath as Cristiano and Messi really don’t know football! Bale has been one of best two in the EPL this year but he is not on their level yet. (If) he carries on doing what he is doing for two-three years then there can be a debate. He showed me a clean pair of heels once this year so I’m in good position to judge. Ronaldo and Messi have been on another planet for four-five years.”
The only criticism that can be levied on him is his fondness for theatrics. But having always denied that he is prone to diving, he insists the only reason he goes to ground so easy is to protect himself from challenges. And that, at that speed, the slightest of touches could send you tumbling.
What Bale must understand is if he performs, nobody will remember these excuses. And if he keeps doing so, the who’s who of world football will continue to sit up and take notice. Manchester United have always been known to be admirers, even from his formative years as a teenager at Southampton.
But the likes of Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich have also been following him keenly – in a not so covert manner. As have Arsenal, but they’re just envious of the fact that their rivals are scaling dizzier heights.
Hoping to play catch up and ruin for yet another season, they are aware that they could use the 5-2 reverse fixture crushing as motivation. And while it’s too early to say if there is a power shift on the cards in north London, it is probably right to say that Gareth Bale has been the difference thus far.
The jury might be still out on Bale but he deserves all the acclaim. Let’s just hope that none of it goes to his head as we don’t want his burgeoning career to sputter-cough-die just yet.
Come Sunday we’ll know which of the two rivals has the bigger cojones.