Is Gareth Bale’s time in Spain coming to an end?
Yes, yes… you’ve heard it all before.
It feels as though the flying winger has spent almost his entire five-and-a-half year Real Madrid career being confronted by rumours that the club are preparing to sell him, and the build-up to Saturday’s derby at Atletico Madrid was no different.
After being sidelined by the latest in a long line of injuries during the opening weeks of 2019, the former Tottenham man has again slipped down the pecking order, relegated to the subs’ bench behind rising star Vinicius Jr and hard-working Lucas Vazquez, a personal favourite of coach Santiago Solari.
Most fans have been in no hurry to see Bale recalled: in an online poll by newspaper AS, 54% wanted the Welshman to stay on the bench despite recovering from injury, while 37% said Vazquez should not start and just 9% wanted Vinicius to be dropped. And that was even before the return of another popular wide man, Marco Asensio.
Poor displays last weekend against Alaves and in midweek at Barcelona hardly helped Bale’s cause, and former Real star Predrag Mijatovic summed up the general mood by telling the Cadena SER radio network that Bale was approaching “his last opportunity”, ominously adding: “We are all fed up with him.”
And with Eden Hazard seemingly set for a summer move to the Bernabeu to further increase the competition for places in attack, surely this latest round of reports that Bale is on his way out will finally prove to be accurate. Won’t they?
Reminder of talents… but remaining aloof
The problem for the detractors – and there are many – who would like to bring Bale’s time in Spain to an end is that, when he plays, he is often good. Very, very good.
And his ability was once again demonstrated in the 3-1 derby victory at Atletico, in which Bale came off the bench to score an exquisitely taken goal, once again forcing his doubters into thinking he could have a future at the club after all.
As expected, he was left on the bench by Solari, further suggesting that he has slipped behind Vinicius in the Bernabeu pecking order.
And Vinicius did not disappoint, with his pace and trickery providing a constant threat on the break. The teenage Brazilian particularly showcased his ability shortly before the break, winning a penalty – which Sergio Ramos converted for a 2-1 lead – by racing clear and forcing Atletico right-back Santiago Arias into a desperate challenge.
Surprisingly, though, Bale was still called into action in place of Vinicius 10 minutes into the second half, leading Spanish television pundit Axel Torres to wryly observe that the decision “doesn’t have much to do with meritocracy”.
After a quiet start, though, Bale justified the change by running onto a perfectly weighted through ball from Luka Modric and producing an emphatic finish, crunching a low, angled shot into the far corner for his 12th goal of the season – and his 100th in Real colours.
But part of Bale’s problem is that he often manages to give the impression of being an outsider, someone who is there without really being emotionally present.
On Saturday, he once again didn’t help himself in that respect by celebrating his goal with a strangely aggressive gesture and later marching straight down the tunnel when the final whistle was blown, leaving his team-mates to celebrate in the centre circle without him.
Bale’s outward unwillingness to fully engage with life in Spain – he has still only carried out one full (heavily staged) interview in Spanish – makes it easy for fans and pundits to turn against him when he struggles for form or fitness. And although his goal on Saturday will allow the pressure to abate for now, we can expect it to re-emerge once again before too long. That, unfortunately, is just the nature of the beast.
In truth, very few people really know whether he has a future at the club – probably not even Bale himself.
Morata nearly the hero on home debut
Bale’s points-clinching century strike partly overshadowed the involvement of two more players – both of whom previously played for Chelsea – who faced an interesting reception from Atletico fans inside the Wanda Metropolitano.
Firstly, there was a home debut for Alvaro Morata. His arrival at Atletico last month was controversial because he had previously progressed through Real Madrid’s youth ranks to play almost 100 games for Los Blancos, helping secure a La Liga and Champions League double in 2017.
However, it’s not quite as straightforward as that, because Morata had already performed the ‘turncoat’ act during his youth, having originally joined Atletico as a child before leaving to join nearby Getafe and only then moving again to Real at the age of 15.
And when he signed for Atletico in January, the Spain striker and his new club were quick to underline his credentials as a lifelong fan, with Morata tweeting a photo of himself as a young boy wearing a red and white replica shirt.
There was still a fairly significant element of opposition to his signature among Atletico fans, so a dream home debut against his former club would have gone a long way towards winning over the dissenters.
After initially looking like a player who has not scored a league goal since November, he showed his pedigree with a brilliant first touch and then a delicate lobbed finish, only to be ruled offside.
When Morata was replaced with 20 minutes to go, he headed to the sidelines with the vast majority of the stadium offering warm applause, and just a few Atletico fans failing to forgive his Real past by whistling him to the bench.
Most of their whistles, though, were reserved for someone else…
Courtois plaque greeted with toy rats
Real keeper Thibaut Courtois launched his career as a teenager with a three-year loan spell at Atletico, during which he became a firm fans’ favourite by playing a vital role in the team’s unexpected title triumph in 2014.
Courtois was then recalled by his parent club Chelsea without being given much say in the matter, but Atletico fans have still taken a highly unsympathetic view of his decision to return to the Spanish capital and join Real – even though it is widely known the move was motivated by personal reasons, with his children living in Madrid.
As planned, Atletico fans expressed their feelings towards their former goalkeeper by ‘decorating’ a commemorative plaque – to mark his 100 games for Atleti – with toy rats and other uncomplimentary items.
Courtois was subjected to intense whistling when he emerged for the pre-game warm-up, and that continued every time he touched the ball once the action got under way.
Courtois only had one real save to make, doing well to repel a powerful drive from Gimenez when his team led 2-1, but on the whole his hostile return to Atletico passed by a lot more comfortably than he might have feared.