When Real Madrid lured Gareth Bale away from Tottenham in September 2013, the Santiago Bernabeu side were initially adamant they had paid €91million for the Wales international rather than the €100m reported across England, in an attempt to keep Cristiano Ronaldo happy.
The Portugal international had previously held the world record transfer fee following his €94m move from Manchester United and Madrid feared losing the status to his new team-mate would irk Ronaldo.
It later transpired that Madrid had indeed paid €100m to bring in Bale, but the message they had sent out was clear: Ronaldo was the top dog at the Bernabeu and the arrival of the former Southampton man did nothing to change that, irrespective of his transfer fee.
Not that Ronaldo’s statistics left any room for doubt.
Love you pic.twitter.com/qhMNOEK2HB
— Cristiano Ronaldo (@Cristiano) May 29, 2016
Whereas Bale had to settle for a still impressive 22 goals in 44 appearances in all competitions in his first season in the Spanish capital, Ronaldo netted a remarkable 51 in 47, scooping the European Golden Shoe as well as the LaLiga and Champions League top-scorer awards.
Yet there were also early signs Bale could potentially usurp Ronaldo as his side’s main man in that first season.
Bale scored Madrid’s vital second goal in their 4-1 Champions League final win over Atletico Madrid, while also netting a breathtaking winner in the Copa del Rey showpiece against arch-rivals Barcelona.
But he was unable to build on that glittering end to his first campaign as he endured a difficult second year at Madrid, with some sections of the fans even booing him after he opted to go for glory rather than set up Ronaldo in a league meeting with Espanyol.
Injury problems prevented him from matching the Portugal star last term, though there were still plenty of positives for Bale as he had a major role in Madrid’s second Champions League victory since his arrival at the club, providing the assist for Sergio Ramos’ opener and converting his spot kick in the decisive penalty shootout.
It was the combination of his performances on the pitch and his behaviour off it that prompted club icon Raul to praise the winger for the impact he’s made over the three past seasons.
“He has scored big goals for Madrid and you can see that he is more and more integrated in the club and really understands the club’s values,” Raul told AS.
“He looks more comfortable when he is playing and in everything he does. Individually he is powerful and has a great shot on him. He has certain qualities that really help Madrid.”
However, with the 2016-17 campaign set to get under way, he now faces the next challenge in his Madrid career, one that was always going to be inevitable: dethroning Ronaldo as the undisputed king of the Bernabeu.
Just landed back in Madrid. Looking forward to meeting up with the boys tomorrow pic.twitter.com/4RWUiEtwvP
— Gareth Bale (@GarethBale11) August 5, 2016
Many have questioned Bale’s ability to ever outdo his team-mate, but the time may have come as Ronaldo nears the autumn of his career.
“Bale’s a wonderful talent. He’s a great player, he’s unbelievably talented,” England legend Gary Lineker recently told AS.
“He’s always going to be in the shadow of Ronaldo while he’s there, because all players are. But he could be the player that steps up once Ronaldo’s powers begin to wane.”
Although Ronaldo comes off arguably the most successful season of his career, winning a third Champions League as well as emerging victorious at Euro 2016 with Portugal, there is a case to be made for the claim that his powers are indeed beginning to fade.
His 51 goals make for impressive reading, but many of them came against inferior opposition, with 11 of his 16 Champions League strikes scored against Shakhtar Donetsk and Malmo. Only in the 2-1 win over Barcelona and in the crucial 3-0 victory versus Wolfsburg did he shine when it mattered most, netting the winner at Camp Nou and a hat-trick against the Bundesliga side to send Madrid into the semi-finals.
Yet despite those two highlights, there’s no denying Ronaldo had his fair share of difficulties in 2015-16, too. The Portugal star was even jeered by his own fans at times as the Madrid fans made it painfully clear nobody is untouchable at the Bernabeu.
— Real Madrid C.F. (@realmadriden) August 18, 2016
And then his body let him down at the biggest moment of his career, when he was forced off in the Euro 2016 final with a knee injury following an innocuous challenge from Dimitri Payet. An injury that could have happened to anyone, but also a sign that Ronaldo is no longer the indestructible force of old.
At the age of 31, Ronaldo is bound to miss games due to physical problems on a more regular basis, starting with Saturday’s LaLiga opener away to Real Sociedad.
¡@GarethBale11 is always on target at Anoeta!
— Real Madrid C.F. (@realmadriden) August 18, 2016
The prolific attacker is still recovering from that injury he picked up against France, meaning Bale is expected to lead Madrid at the Anoeta. The Welshman has fond memories of Sociedad’s home ground, scoring three goals in as many games there, and will be desperate to start the season on a high as he approaches his physical peak at the age of 27.
It would be foolish to claim Ronaldo is finished as he undoubtedly has a few more good years in him. He might have to get used to the idea that he is no longer Madrid’s undisputed key figure, though, with Bale ready to take his crown.