The Year of the Dragon – Can this be the year Gareth Bale takes centre stage at Real Madrid?
On the transfer deadline day in 2013, Real Madrid created a football allegiance between two of the most gifted and, at the time, two of the world’s most expensive players at the Santiago Bernabeu. ( Cristiano Ronaldo was well-established as one of the two best players in the world alongside Clasico rival Lionel Messi. The Portuguese was one half of this allegiance. The other half was undisputedly the best player in the Premier League for two straight seasons and arguably already one of the best players in the world – Gareth Bale.
There were, and perhaps still are, only a handful of players that can rival the Welshman’s rare qualities in the world. Like a prime, younger version of the Ronaldo at Manchester United and his early Real Madrid years before he began his transition to playing more centrally, the former Spurs winger possesses enough pace to outrun a Formula 1 vehicle (just ask Marc Bartra!), an absolute cannon of a left-foot and the leap of a predatory animal.
He has been a player for clutch moments at the Spanish capital, scoring in Champions League finals, Copa del Rey finals, crunch league ties and so on. His success at the club has made him the most successful Britisher in Europe with four Champions League medals to his name. Yet, his stay in Madrid wasn’t meant to be without its fair share of issues, the most obvious one, of course, being Bale’s recurring injuries.
The former Saints winger has missed significant chunks of games during his time at Real, with recurring calf strains, ankle injuries (including damaged tendons) and other muscular injuries. He has notably bulked when compared to his time at Spurs, but on the other hand has become more vulnerable to injuries.
Overall, in his five seasons at Real Madrid – he has racked up 127 league appearances out of a possible 175 – scoring 71 and setting up a further 40. Injury prone or not, those are phenomenal numbers being produced by the winger.
His association and on-pitch relation with Cristiano Ronaldo is another intriguing aspect to consider. The wingers along with Karim Benzema – the famed trinity more commonly referred to as ‘BBC’ – have been one of the most successful attacking trios in the 21st century.
Yet, the gravitational influence on the pitch that Ronaldo possesses does create an impact on the team up to a certain degree. It is, for all intents and purposes, comparable to arguably the only attacking trident that is marginally superior to ‘BBC’ in the modern era – the Barcelona attack featuring Luis Suarez, Lionel Messi and Neymar Jr.
Neymar, after enjoying a vastly successful spell with Barcelona including a treble-winning campaign in his second season at the club, departed the Catalan giants before the 2017/18 season. A Nasser Al-Khelaifi-owned PSG paid, or rather ripped the world record fee paid for Paul Pogba by Manchester United (£89.4m) to shreds by shelling out €222m – Neymar’s release clause to the very last Euro – to take him to Paris.
The reason for this move is widely considered to be Neymar wanting to be the face of a European giant, to be the protagonist. At Barcelona, this was not in the realm of possibility due to the presence of arguably the greatest player of this generation, Lionel Messi. Gerard Pique perfectly summed up the intentions of the Brazilian when he said at a press conference after the move, "Neymar cannot be the protagonist at Barcelona, because the best will always be Messi, always."
While Gareth Bale never expressed such dire desire to ‘step out of a shadow’ so to speak, he has for four seasons out of the five that he’s been at Real, been linked to moves away from the European Champions.
He made his intentions to play a free-attacking role clear during the brief stint that Rafa Benitez had in Madrid, and was one of the few Madrid players to come out in support and speak of his disappointment to see the Spaniard leave the club.
Speaking on Benitez’ sacking, he told the Guardian: “I had a very good relationship with Rafa. Obviously, it was a big disappointment to see him go but things like this happen in football: you’re professional and you get on with it, and carry on.”
His problems were further complicated during Rafa’s successor Zinedine Zidane’s second and third seasons at the club, due to the Frenchman opting to tweak Real’s system. He switched from a traditional 4-3-3 to a midfield diamond with a Ronaldo-Benzema strikeforce and Isco Alarcon was primed to start as the playmaker behind them.
Bale was still crucial for them – his substitute appearance in the 17/18 Champions League final in Kiev saw him named Man of the Match for his stunning goals. But, he was no longer a guaranteed starter, and his injury record wasn’t in his favour either.
From things looking obscure and bleak for the Welshman, skipping barely three months forward, the scenery has terraformed more than anyone could have imagined at Real Madrid. Three-time Champions League winning mastermind Zidane has departed the club, following which, Madrid’s all-time record goalscorer – Cristiano Ronaldo – has donned the black and white stripes of Juventus.
Despite a host of rumours linking Real Madrid to top players such as Eden Hazard, Harry Kane, Mauro Icardi, and PSG duo Neymar and Kylian Mbappe (for whom they’ve even released official statements denying any transfer links), there has been no sign of a ‘Galactico’ nearing a move to Los Blancos.
Albeit this is a risky game being played by Julien Lopetegui and Real Madrid in terms of strength in depth (their only backup centre-forward is 22-year-old Borja Mayoral), one thing is for certain – Gareth Bale will finally have the centre stage that he craves and more importantly, that a player of his quality deserves.
The #11 has already had a smashing start to the season, scoring 2 goals in two games and is looking sharper than he has in a long while on the pitch. Should he stay fit under the tutelage of Julen Lopetegui, there is possibly no reason for him not to have a commanding season and throw himself into the mix for the Ballon d’Or. As mentioned above, there are only a handful of players in the world capable of matching Gareth Bale in terms of power, talent and technique.
With a full summer’s rest, a full pre-season (barring a minor injury scare) and a freedom to drift around the pitch that wasn’t available to him over previous seasons, and most importantly to become a leader on the pitch for Europe’s most decorated football club – Gareth Bale’s opportunity to seal his legacy as the greatest British export has finally arrived.
Will this finally be the year of the Dragon?