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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 20 March 2019

Unhappy Gareth Bale can still conjure happy clasico memories against Barcelona

The Welshman was Real Madrid's hero five years ago with a breathtaking goal against Barcelona in the Copa del Rey final

Gareth Bale, centre, did not look interested in celebrating his goal against Levante with his teammates at the weekend. AFP
Gareth Bale, centre, did not look interested in celebrating his goal against Levante with his teammates at the weekend. AFP

Gareth Bale scored his 100th goal for Real Madrid earlier in February, and brought up the century on a fittingly big occasion, a city derby away at Atletico. Bale has had a useful knack of goals in important games through his five and a half years at Madrid.

It would be pushing it, though, to state that Bale reached his landmark in impeccable style. He celebrated the goal with a provocative hand gesture, apparently aimed at the crowd, for which he may face a ban. And his next Madrid goal, number 101, the winner on Sunday against Levante, also stirred controversy.

Bale had come off the bench with just over a quarter of an hour left, with the score at 1-1, converted a penalty and then appeared to brush off teammates wanting to celebrate with him.

He had already been spied giving off signs of indignation at his role as a substitute. Bale, the most expensive player at around £85.3 million (Dh413.2m), in Madrid’s history, has started on the bench for four the last five league matches.

The flashpoints of recent weeks pick at long-term itches. There is hostility in the local media. "An unacceptable attitude," wrote the newspaper AS’s chief columnist, Alfredo Relano, of Bale's singular goal celebration at the weekend.

Recent references in interviews given by teammates Thibaut Courtois and Marcelo - Bale missed a team dinner; his spoken Spanish is limited; his enthusiasm for gold is apparently regarded as quirky - have cast the Welshman as a disengaged outsider.

None of which needs to be relevant when a player has won four European Cups with Madrid, contributed over 100 goals to the club at a rate of better than one every 160 minutes on the pitch, and has played match-winner roles in major finals several times.

The last of those was the 2018 Uefa Champions League final in Kiev, when he scored the final two goals in Madrid’s 3-1 win over Liverpool, one of them a sensational overhead volley.

The celebrations then were unconventional, too. Not so much on the pitch, but after the final whistle, when, ahead of his man of the match award, ahead of the trophy ceremony, Bale announced he would be seriously considering his future over the coming weeks.

Cristiano Ronaldo, the superstar eclipsed on the night by the substitute Bale, was meanwhile saying the same thing, while the victorious manager, Zinedine Zidane sighed to himself at yet more evidence that managing the ambitions and egos in this dressing-room could be a wearying task, however rewarding the glories.

Two months later, Ronaldo had left, Zidane had stepped down, leaving Bale with what looked like a liberated path to figurehead status at Madrid, no longer having to design his game around Ronaldo’s runs, no longer vexed by Zidane’s tendency to use the Welsh sprinter from the bench.

But, two managers later, Bale finds himself in an all-too-familiar situation. The emergence of teenager Vinicius Junior as a sparky, creative attacking threat under Santi Solari, who took over as caretaker coach in October, has jostled the hierarchy.

Episodes of injury have also disrupted Bale’s momentum - as they have throughout his Madrid career - and he looks around the dressing-room and sees that senior players are not indulged by Solari with Isco marginalised, and Marcelo no longer undroppable.

Nor can Bale anticipate the crowd at the Bernabeu to demand his inclusion. For all that he has scored vital goals at important moments, he has not become a Real folk hero.

Mind you, it would not take too much to remind them that Bale can seize the initiative in unique and special ways.

Ahead of Wednesday’s Copa del Rey semi-final second leg against Barcelona, poised at 1-1, Bale will hardly be able to turn on his TV without seeing replays of his finest clasico moment that came in the same competition.

The solo slalom that took him and the ball, at breakneck speed, from his own half to score the winning goal in the final.

Solari will remember it, too, as he contemplates how to best deploy his resources through the most scrutinised five days of his young managerial career: a clasico in the cup on Wednesday, then Barcelona at home again, in La Liga, on Saturday. And he will not be studying anyone’s goal celebrations.

“I don’t care how he [Bale] celebrates,” said the manager. “I just like the way he comes on the field and wants to win.”

Updated: February 27, 2019 09:37 AM

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