Gareth Bale's Real Madrid conundrum for Zinedine Zidane has echoes of Laurie Cunningham in 1981
Whether the Welshman starts or not against Liverpool in the Uefa Champions League final is one of the big decisions facing Zinedine Zidane
His season had been disrupted by injury. He had been at Real Madrid for a while but was still viewed as something of an outsider. His transfer free, record-breaking at the time, meant he always carried special pressure, bore scrutiny.
Madrid knew he could produce a moment of magic on the big stage; they wondered only if he had 90 great minutes in him in a major final, and, beyond it, if the right time was approaching to sell this rare British import and potential match-winner.
So it was that ahead of the 1981 European Cup final against Liverpool, Madrid’s head coach Vujadin Boskov, prevaricated over whether to select Laurie Cunningham, the England international winger, in his starting XI.
And so it is, as the two clubs meet in a Champions League final 37 years later, another Madrid coach, Zinedine Zidane, ponders the same questions over Gareth Bale.
To go with his star speedster, knowing how respected and feared he is by Premier League opponents? Or to keep him on the bench? For Zidane it has been a genuine dilemma.
A couple of months ago, Bale’s chances of making the starting XI for Madrid in Kiev on Saturday seemed remote. He has had an irregular season, injured – once again – for a large chunk of it.
He was left on the bench for both of the last-16 matches against Paris Saint-Germain, and seemed peeved.
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He neither started the away leg against Juventus in the quarter-finals nor the two legs of the semi- against Bayern Munich.
Zidane did give Bale the chance to take on Juve from kick-off at the Bernabeu, with a 3-0 lead already in Madrid’s credit, but then took him off at half-time as Juventus alarmingly came back into the tie, which was won, 4-3 on aggregate, only when Lucas Vazquez was fouled for a late penalty.
Vazquez and Marco Asensio are two young players who have apparently eclipsed Bale in the Madrid hierarchy, and among those who, along with Isco and centre-forward Karim Benzema, now joust for two places in the front three alongside Cristiano Ronaldo.
The case for Bale – second top-scorer this term behind Ronaldo - has been boosted by his domestic form. The Welshman Bale has seven goals from his last six Primera Liga starts.
Among those Bale strikes were weighty ones – an equaliser against new Spanish champions Barcelona at Camp Nou – and dazzling ones - like his second, a virtuoso effort, in the last home outing of the season against Celta Vigo.
Years ago, Cunningham, a true football pioneer, won the hearts of madridistas with two goals in a clasico against Barcelona.
He was also a wonderful entertainer, with an electric change of pace and close control. His transfer - for close to £1 million (Dh4.9m), almost matching the British record at the time - to Madrid, from West Bromwich Albion, had set him tough challenges, and he had already overcome many, as a black footballer of the 1970s in an England where racist abuse at stadiums was frequent.
In Spain, where he arrived with limited spoken Spanish, he was also considered exotic, a man apart in a team with a strong homegrown core.
“He was amazingly talented,” Vicente del Bosque, a Madrid teammate, recalled to this reporter, “but not always consistent.”
Cunningham would end up setting down roots in Madrid, where he died tragically young, 33, killed in a car accident in 1989.
He left Real Madrid the season after the 1981 European Cup final, which Liverpool won 1-0 in Paris and which had been preceded by dilemmas over Cunningham’s starting place.
He was suffering a bad toe injury, took injections for it, and Boskov talked about his being taken off if the pain became unbearable.
But Cunningham’s attacking runs represented one of the better threats in a turgid encounter. He played the full 90 minutes.
Bale, in who Madrid invested more than €100m (Dh430m), will figure in Zidane’s plans against Liverpool. The question is whether it is with 90 minutes in mind, as part of Plan A, or as the key for a Plan B.
His form, his power, his pace, and, to some degree, memories of the visceral impact he used to make in the Premier League, for Tottenham Hotspur in matches against a few of the current Liverpool players, mean he must be part of Zidane’s strategy.
Yet, just like Cunningham in ‘81, this may be Bale’s last European Cup final in Madrid’s all-white.
He, like Cunningham, is viewed as superb but flawed, an injury-compromised asset, and, after five years at Real, Madrid have quietly let it be known he is sellable, if the price is right.
Updated: May 25, 2018 01:32 PM