When Gareth Bale rolled in a 78th-minute penalty to secure a barely deserved 2-1 win against Levante you could have been forgiven for believing we had been visited by the ghost of Real Madrid past.
The surly face, the puffed-out chest, the shrugging off of team-mates, the solitary jog back to the halfway line.
Yes, this had all the hallmarks of a Cristiano Ronaldo political statement.
Madrid’s greatest-ever goalscorer had a history of airing his off-field grievances with a moody ‘celebration’ on the pitch. It is a tactic that has seemingly rubbed off on Bale.
You do not need a degree in psychology to decipher what point Bale was making with his prickly body language. His display of dissatisfaction at a lack of playing time under Santiago Solari was delivered with about as much subtlety as a peacock trying to stay incognito among a flock of pigeons.
It would not take much digging below the surface to understand why.
When Ronaldo played chicken over his future with president Florentino Perez and the Madrid hierarchy one too many times and was sold in a blockbuster move to Juventus, there was meant to be a passing of the torch to Bale.
It was time to take on Ronaldo’s mantle as the face that runs the place.
EQUIPO! UNIÓN! HALA MADRID! pic.twitter.com/4ccdKjCrQS
— Gareth Bale (@GarethBale11) February 27, 2019
The only trouble is that the ghost of Madrid future is unceremoniously usurping the ghost of Madrid present.
An untimely calf injury, the latest in a series of muscular issues that have plagued Bale in recent years, provided Vinicius Junior an opportunity he had been robbed of during Julen Lopetegui’s forgettable four-and-a-half-month spell as coach.
The Brazil star in the making has grasped his chance with both hands and Bale has been largely consigned to a bench role as Solari persists with a front three of Karim Benzema, Vinicius and Lucas Vazquez.
Indeed, just two of his past nine appearances have come from the start. A player of Bale’s undoubted quality should not be warming the bench, particularly when at 29 he is in what should be the peak years of his career.
The trouble is, if you believe the reports, Bale does not have many allies in the Madrid dressing room. Indeed, Marcelo and Thibaut Courtois have recently spoken about Bale in a way that paints the picture of a superstar in isolation.
All is not lost for Bale. It is easy to imagine that the former Tottenham star allowed himself an ‘I told you so’ moment as Madrid suffered more Bernabeu humiliation against fierce rivals Barcelona in a 3-0 Copa del Rey semi-final defeat on Wednesday.
That loss, which consigned Los Blancos to a 4-1 aggregate reverse, may convince Solari to roll the dice and start Bale in Saturday’s second part of a Santiago Bernabeu Clasico double-header that has taken on increased significance for the head coach.
Earlier this month, Solari was silencing the doubters. A 3-1 beating of rivals Atletico Madrid brought out the war cries. The title race in LaLiga was on.
Three weeks later, with a shoddy setback at home to Girona preceding the lacklustre Levante win and Copa Clasico collapse, the crazy circus that is life at Madrid means Solari faces a potentially make-or-break game to prove he can succeed in the hot seat long term.
Still hurts but proud of the team for the way we played last night. Heads up. Big challenges ahead. pic.twitter.com/GtvNTWMi9l
— Toni Kroos (@ToniKroos) February 28, 2019
And so here Bale is at a Clasico crossroads.
If he can inspire an instant reply in Madrid’s last chance to stay in a title race that already looks beyond them given the nine-point gap to Barca, then the course of history may be headed for a different path. The chance to be Ronaldo’s successor as chief protagonist may once again be his.
Should he fail to deliver, the never-ending rumours of pursuits for Eden Hazard and Neymar will surely gather pace ahead of what could be an increasingly important transfer window at Madrid, with only a Champions League triumph likely to be enough to keep Solari at the helm.
The thought that Madrid would sell their two greatest attacking assets in consecutive close seasons would at one point have been akin to going all in with ace high in a poker game of unimaginable stakes.
But it is a scenario that looks increasingly less a gamble and more an inevitability. Madrid already proved that they will not bluff when they signed off on selling Ronaldo. If things do not go Bale’s way this weekend, his six-year stay with Los Blancos may fold.
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