Bale back to his best?

Next year could be a great one for Gareth Bale. A place on the international stage at Euro 2016 with Wales awaits the costly superstar, while Real Madrid fans’ hopes have been raised by an upturn in the fortunes of the Cardiff-born frontman. 

As Bale left the pitch after 73 minutes of his side’s home fixture against Rayo Vallecano last weekend he was greeted by sustained applause from supporters at Santiago Bernabeu, having netted four times in Los Blancos’ emphatic 10-2 win over their suburban neighbours. 

Much has been written and said about the true worth of victory over a team that had been reduced to nine men after less than half an hour, but the Welshman took full advantage of the extra space on the pitch, doubling his season’s goals tally in La Liga to eight from 10 starts.

Bale has had a quiet season so far but did well in Madrid’s previous game, an infamous 1-0 defeat at Villarreal, and escaped much of the venom aimed at his teammates, who failed to take the multiple chances set up for them by the former Tottenham man.

On Sunday, Bale was man of the match by common consent among the Spanish Press, receiving plaudits galore from the very same writers and commentators who had been writing off the man with the €100m price tag. Those two fine performances might just have kick-started the Welshman’s campaign.

Bale made a big impact in his debut season at the Bernabeu under Carlo Ancelotti, who gave him the space he needed in a settled side, with Angel di Maria, Xabi Alonso and Luka Modric in midfield and Bale and Ronaldo flanking Karim Benzema in attack. The Welshman proved to be the missing piece in the Madrid jigsaw.

Bale’s time at the Bernabeu has been disrupted by injury and he is inclined to drift in and out of games, often a peripheral figure. Despite scoring goals and leading his country to France, he has not been the same player for Los Blancos since heading the crucial goal against Atletico Madrid in the 2014 Champions League final in Lisbon.

Criticised – not least, and not without irony, by Cristiano Ronaldo – for being selfish in front of goal and also maligned for not contributing defensively, Bale has been the subject of conjecture for much of his time at the Bernabeu about his relationship with the Portuguese.

Doubts remain as to whether Bale can play in the same team as Ronaldo, with the pair perpetually at loggerheads and the latter blatantly unprepared to even pass to the man seen as heir to his throne. Neither man publicly denies any rift, but departure of one or the other may be the only viable long-term solution.

Perhaps players of such rare skill and reckoned to be worth the telephone number salaries should be expected to be more flexible, but Bale’s natural flair has nevertheless often been stifled under Rafa Benitez, with the Coach at pains to keep the petulant Ronaldo happy and the Welshman having to fit in around him.

Bale’s third season at Madrid has been hampered by a malaise that has seen Los Blancos fall behind both Barcelona and Atletico in the Primera Liga title race. Even though much of the blame has been laid at Benitez’s door, and that of President Florentino Perez, the players must shoulder responsibility and that includes Bale.

It is too early to say whether the Bale of old is truly back in business following two good performances. Madrid fans will not be convinced until they see him deploy his electrifying pace to regularly get past defenders and deliver his trademark free-kicks with deadly effect.

Christmas brings only the briefest of breaks in Spain this year and when Madrid are back in action next week against Real Sociedad, Bale will still have Ronaldo alongside him and the weight of expectation to deliver will return.