Christmas came early for Real Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane on Saturday when Gareth Bale came off the bench and scored 13 minutes later to seal a 2-0 victory over Espanyol. The result was never really in doubt, but Real Madrid required extra impetus to get over the line against a side set up more to avoid defeat than to inflict one.
Madrid’s La Liga title challenge was in a similar state in January as Zidane’s side spluttered rather than fired on all cylinders. The leaders dropped points only at Sevilla but laboured to wins over Malaga and Osasuna, in both games lacking a little spark. Bale — who was “enchufado“, or plugged in, as Zidane described him after the Espanyol game — will provide that after three months on the sidelines with an ankle injury. In a week when Real have two potentially tricky away games against Valencia (one of two vital games in hand) and Villarreal, the timing could not have been better: Bale’s projected return date was the Champions League second leg against Napoli in March.
The Wales forward has made 17 appearances in all competitions this season and has been involved in a goal in all but five of them. In La Liga, since his arrival at the Bernabeu in 2013, he has 53 goals and 35 assists in 93 games.
Last season was Bale’s most prolific in Spain to date. In just 23 Liga matches, he hit 19 goals and provided 11 assists. After seven games out with a recurring calf problem at the start of 2016, Bale returned at the beginning of March with a goal in a 7-1 dismantling of Celta Vigo. With Real chasing a faltering Barcelona in the final weeks, he was the match winner against Rayo Vallecano and Real Sociedad in the absence of Karim Benzema, who went off injured in the first half at the Vallecas Stadium, and Cristiano Ronaldo, who missed both fixtures. The parallels are enticing for Zidane with Real in the driving seat this time around.
Despite Lucas Vazquez’s considerable contribution to the team, he rarely switches flanks as Bale does, an ability that presents a formidable problem for opposition defences, as Espanyol discovered after reducing Ronaldo to zero shots on target. Bale’s explosive running is becoming an increasingly elusive commodity for the Portuguese as his pace gradually deserts him, and Bale caught the visitors completely off guard.
Last season, Ronaldo’s insistence on attempting to set a record for playing every minute of every Liga game caused him to miss those two fixtures and, ultimately, the first leg of the Champions League semifinal against Manchester City and most of the European Championship final.
Both player and manager have taken the lesson on board. When Zidane took Ronaldo off in Rome in the 2015-16 Champions League, it was front-page news. This season Zidane has done so on three occasions in the league, and he will do so again to keep his squad in optimum shape in the hunt for a domestic and European double. Only once, against Las Palmas, did Ronaldo react as might be expected, but the frustration was collective at that stage of the campaign.
Zidane has also exercised his authority on Bale’s best position. Pressure from the player and team president Florentino Perez caused former Real Madrid manager Rafa Benitez to buckle as early as the first game of his tenure when he fielded Bale as a No. 10 in a 0-0 draw with Sporting Gijon. The experiment bore fruit briefly in routine thrashings of Real Betis and Espanyol but was quickly shelved after the tactical shambles of the 4-0 Clasico defeat in November 2015. Bale has played just four times out of his right wing position under Zidane, each time on the left, and then only because Ronaldo was filling in for Benzema.
Bale’s return to action not only gives Zidane the option of altering his shape and resting Benzema — the Frenchman is Real’s most substituted player this season, being taken off 15 times in total — but also takes the scoring burden off Ronaldo, who has looked increasingly weighed down by the responsibility in recent weeks. With Bale taking up some of the slack, Ronaldo can continue to develop an increasingly collaborative role in the side that has already produced five Champions League assists compared to just two goals.
All of which doesn’t bode well for Alvaro Morata, despite the canterano‘s encouraging performances. Zidane knows that a front three of Ronaldo, Benzema and Bale provides guarantees, not least because of their lengthy experience of playing as a unit. When they are fit and the opposition requires it, the BBC will play. The huge ovation Bale received from the Bernabeu on Saturday was in stark contrast to the jeers his strike partners have been subjected to recently. The Welshman’s value has never been greater.
The fans recognise that when a finish line is within reach and a Liga title is the prize, Bale is the player you want doing the running. As Zidane said Saturday: “There’s nobody like him. He’s a special player.”