REAL MADRID

The Gareth Bale mystery

Zidane had hoped to line up Bale, Hazard and Benzema in a three-man attack, but the Real Madrid coach appears to have lost faith in the Welsh forward again.

Bale, esta temporada.
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"I was made more of a scapegoat than most, I take it with a pinch of salt even though maybe it's not all fully fair. "I wouldn't say I'm playing happy". Few now remember how outspoken Bale was at the start of the season, when he was playing an important role in the team after a turbulent summer which saw him half-way to the Chinese SuperLiga. But it was all an illusion. Bale has gone back to being the irrelevant Bale of recent seasons, the player who disappeared in a puff of smoke after scoring a brace in the Champions League final in Kiev, his last major contribution to the cause.

With the lack of goals forcing his hand and Bale one of players in his squad who finds the net most easily, Zidane had decided to bring the player back into the fold. That was before the games against City and Barcelona, two games with very different outcomes. With their chances in the Champions League hanging by a thread after the 1-2 at the Bernabéu against Guardiola's men but with a dominant position in LaLiga, having beaten Barcelona 2-0 in the Clásico to lead their bitter rivals by a point with 12 games left and easier run-in, the question now is what role Bale will have for the rest of the season. It's a mystery which should start to be solved the Sunday in the Benito Villamarín against Betis. If the Welsh forward makes a significant appearance it could herald him having a role to play in the trip to the Etihad on 17 March. If not, there's every chance Bale will be left in limbo until the end of his contract.

Sources close to the player consulted by this newspaper made it clear how difficult the Bale situation is for Real Madrid. The forward is under contract till 2022 and earns 14.5 million net per season, the highest paid player at the club alongside Sergio Ramos. And right now, "he's not thinking about anything other than finishing his contract wearing the Real Madrid shirt", we were told. And there is no other team interested in taking the Welshman on. And there wasn't last summer, with the exception of Chinese side Jiangsu Sunning, who were willing to pay his wages, but not pay a transfer fee for him. The operation fell apart the moment Madrid demanded cash for the move. Having seen Bale's performances this season it would have been better to let him go for free.

Roller-coaster at Real Madrid

At the start of the season Zidane was plotting a front three of Bale, Benzema and Hazard. The reason he backed the Welshman from the start. The Frenchman's phrase "better if you go today rather than tomorrow", said in a private meeting with the player, wasn't a spiteful attack but rather said from the certainty that Bale was almost certain to move to China.

That Zidane wanted a BBH for the big matches was made clear in the first major game of the season away to PSG, but he overplayed his hand and put James on alongside Casemiro and Kroos and Madrid fell to a 3-0 defeat. Even so, Zidane went with the same 11 for the next game at the Sánchez Pizjuán, winning 0-1 this time around. And the coach repeated the trident against Atlético in LaLiga (0-0), another big game. This time with Casemiro-Valverde-Kroos in midfield...

The ankle injury to Hazard put paid to Zidane's idea of a BBH until the return of the Belgian against Celta (2-2). That looked like a test for his plans against City. But the poor performance of Bale, and then the injury to Hazard definitively killed Zidane's plans.

Bale's credit at Madrid has nearly run out. His stats do little for him. He hasn't scored in LaLiga since 1 September (188 days now!). He's only scored three this season, and he's only played 33% of available minutes (until now his average was 47%). He's only finished five of the 14 games he started... not great for the best paid player, alongside Ramos, in the squad. Bale is running the risk of becoming completely irrelevant.