If this were the 1980s, then the lobby of the Welsh team hotel ahead of the clash with Belgium would have been stuffed with groupies. Well, about three Ian Rush fanatics, perhaps, taking a break from a Bruno Brookes phase.
Instead, Gareth Bale had the distinctly non-sexy, but certainly mentally stimulating pleasure of bumping into Rafa Benitez before the European qualifying clash. Just a few weeks ago, it would have been a mere pleasantry of a meeting. But now, his relationship with the new Real Madrid coach could be key to Gareth Bale’s destiny as a footballer.
So it was a good job that the get-together was all bear hugs and smiles. “I spoke to Rafa at the team hotel before the game, so I guess it was good to get a good win in front of the new boss,” said Bale after the victory.
Whilst Carlo Ancelotti’s departure was mourned by most of the Madrid squad, quite publicly by Sergio Ramos and Cristiano Ronaldo, the Welsh forward may have been handed a bit of a break. That’s not to say that the Italian manager did not stand by Bale when the Madridista waves were a little choppy, and the crowd and press were hanging onto Bale’s back. It’s just that the former Spurs man was set to be stuck in limbo for another season – impossible to sell for political reasons but jammed on the wrong side of the pitch to suit his particular powers.
If the rumblings of the Madrid media are correct then Bale might well be restored to his favoured left flank, bumping Cristiano into a more central role just behind Karim Benzema, as clearly the Portuguese poacher has been slacking off of late in terms of goals. This might be wise move anyway for Ronaldo, who has turned 30 and will soon find it harder and harder to charge and swoop from 40 yards on a repeated basis.
The challenge for Benitez will then be one shared by many a predecessor – how to accommodate the expensive Florentino Pérez purchases of talents such as Isco and James Rodríguez, whilst keeping a balance on both the pitch and in the dressing-room. The answer might be to purchase an out-and-out wizard of the right wing – Angel di María would have been rather handy – and move James into a midfield three alongside Luka Modric and Toni Kroos. But that would be a bit of a waste of the Colombian’s playmaking powers, so a 4-2-3-1 formation might be a likelier option.
Ultimately, these are very much first world problems for the Champions League-winning boss, but the long-term strategy of Real Madrid must be to plonk Bale back onto his path of being the heir to Cristiano Ronaldo in terms of influence and energy, even if the sheer quantity of goals might be an unfair expectation.
The Welshman turns 26 in July, a crucial phase of his career when he should be reaching his peak. To rediscover the form that first attracted Bale to the Real Madrid president, a fast start to the new campaign will be required to win over doubting supporters, still in a funk from a poor previous season. If Bale’s increasingly vocal agent is correct, he will also have to persuade his teammates to give him the ball from time to time in return for putting in a defensive shift.
The first two years of Real Madrid life for Bale have been far from a flop. But they have definitely not lived up to their potential. But that might all be about to change after a brief encounter in Wales, that might set up a new beginning at the Bernabéu.