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Let's pretend, for a moment, that Manchester United have £50million to spend on either Cristiano Ronaldo or Gareth Bale in the summer. Which should they sign? The answer seems at once rather obvious, doesn't it?
After we polled this question with United fans on Twitter, the response was overwhelmingly in favour of a Ronaldo return. Around 90% of replies stated a preference for the Portuguese, with answers ranging from 'No contest. Ronaldo' to 'Are you being serious?'
Rio Ferdinand mirrored the views of most United supporters when he claimed on Twitter, 'People mentioning Bale in the same breath as Cristiano and Messi really don't know football!
'Bale been one of best two in the Premier League this year but he is not on Ronaldo and Messi's level yet.'
Of course, Ferdinand is entirely correct in his view that Bale is some way from rivalling the ability of Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, but the key word the United defender used is 'yet'. Although Ronaldo is undoubtedly one of the top two players in the world there is a case that Bale, who is five years younger and enjoying his best season so far, would be the better signing at this stage of the pair's respective careers.
There are many ways to skew this argument, with the most obvious pointing to what Ronaldo had achieved as a 23-year-old. In the 2007/08 season, the forward's incredible haul of 42 goals in 49 appearances led United to Premier League and Champions League glory as the Reds played the most expansive and exciting football of Sir Alex Ferguson's tenure.
It's always enjoyable to remember Ronaldo's performances that season, but it isn't fair to expect the same from Bale this year. For a start, the Wales international isn't playing in a team with the same overall quality of that famous United side, and he can hardly be blamed for Spurs' failure to qualify for the Champions League last season. In his solitary campaign in the competition Bale proved that he can excel on the European stage, making a mockery of the suggestion that he has only shown his quality 'for six weeks', as one reply to the Twitter poll argued.
Furthermore, Ronaldo's nurturing at United before the 2007/08 campaign had been a lot more consistent than Bale's until this juncture. He was signed as a winger four years previously, rather than changing positions once his talent as an attacker emerged, and it was clear from the start that the first team would eventually be built around the enormously talented youngster. Despite his own impressive goalscoring record for United, Ruud van Nistelrooy was shown the door just weeks after falling out with Ronaldo in 2006, with everything neatly put in place for the Portuguese to star.
By comparison, Bale's development has been somewhat erratic. He is now working under his third manager in five years at Spurs and this is only his third season in an attacking role, symbolically changing his squad number from '3' to '11' in the summer after beginning life at White Hart Lane as a left-back. It was Luka Modric's permanent move from the left into the centre at the start of 2010/11 that saw Bale take his chance as a winger, scoring twice in a 2-1 victory at Stoke in August before announcing his arrival in the Champions League with a stunning hat-trick at the San Siro.
If that was Bale's breakthrough season, then this year is his version of Ronaldo's 2006/07, when the former United star found consistency in front of goal with 23 strikes in 49 matches. That Bale has already surpassed his own total from last season, notching 19 goals in 33 appearances so far, highlights the year-on-year improvement that would make £50million look a wise investment.
There are more than merely superficial similarities between Bale and Ronaldo and although Bale may have imitated his role model's powerful running style and free-kick technique, to recent reward, he also possesses the same solid core that has been central to Ronaldo's success, with both players at the peak of physical condition required to carve a niche at the very top. This may work to favour Ronaldo in this hypothetical argument and the Real forward is currently showing no signs of slowing down, scoring twice against Barcelona on Wednesday in a 3-1 victory at the Nou Camp. But considering the 28-year-old's main strengths lie in his physical attributes, will he continue to offer as much as a rapidly improving Bale when he is the wrong side of 30 in two years' time?
While Bale has also proved himself to be a match-winner in the current campaign - scoring four decisive strikes in his last five appearances - one argument against the winger's appeal is that he wouldn't be afforded the free role he currently enjoys at Spurs if he were to move to Old Trafford.
"The idea now is that if I mix my game up, come inside, they (defenders) can't all follow you as they have to stay in shape. It gives me a bit more freedom and a bit more licence to get on the ball and do damage in other parts of the field," said Bale when discussing his deployment this season. The 23-year-old would at the very least be required to maintain his startling rate of development in order to receive similar preferential treatment under Ferguson.
Perhaps the only certainty in this debate lies away from the pitch in the corridors of power and bulls**t. Ronaldo would certainly offer more marketing possibilities than Bale, given the lucrative agreements already in place and a torso that everyone wants a piece of. But what Bale would fail to earn United in terms of endorsements, he would more than make up for in re-sale value. If the Wales international continues his current rise, it would not be unrealistic to think Real Madrid might return with a £100million offer for United's latest star in three years' time.
If we remove the sentimentality of Ronaldo's achievements with United and consider his appeal alongside Bale purely on the basis of which player could offer more to the club over the next five years, it's a much closer race than first appears. Ronaldo may be at the very top right now, having scored a phenomenal 195 goals in his four seasons in Madrid, but if Bale had the opportunity to regularly challenge for the Premier League and Champions League with United, who knows the level he could reach?
It's unlikely Bale will ever match Ronaldo's achievements, but this hypothetical question is concerned with whether Bale could match Ronaldo over the next five years and where United would stand at the end of that period. When the 'Bale or Ronaldo' debate is viewed from this perspective, it isn't unreasonable to suggest that Bale shades it. Now, if only United had a spare £50million lying around.
Matt Stanger - he's on the Twitter.
I'd rather buy several good players than one over-inflated super star.- SocraticIrony