Better than Beckham? Opta numbers suggest Zidane is right to turn back to Bale

By Sports Desk August 17, 2019
Gareth Bale Gareth Bale

Gareth Bale looks set to get another chance at Real Madrid after he was named in their starting XI for the opening LaLiga game of the season at Celta Vigo.

Bale seemed certain to depart Madrid after six seasons with coach Zinedine Zidane, whom the Wales star has a rocky relationship with, making it clear during pre-season he wanted the forward to leave.

But, after a move to Jiangsu Suning in the Chinese Super League collapsed and no other realistic suitors emerged, Bale has been reintegrated into the Madrid squad.

The Cardiff-born forward has consistently delivered across a trophy-laden spell, but he often lived in the shadow of the imperious Cristiano Ronaldo – who was worshipped above all others at the Santiago Bernabeu before his departure to Juventus last year – and suffered with injuries.

There is no club in world football with higher expectations of its players than Madrid and Bale has at times been forced to toil under what many would consider unfair scrutiny and criticism, but an examination of his record in the Spanish capital shows his value.

Goal return to rival Ronaldo 

Bale left Tottenham as a once orthodox winger who had blossomed into a goal-scoring force on the flank and has continued that development in Madrid.

He scored 22 times in all competitions during his first season and added another 80 over the next five to join an exclusive club of players to have hit a century of goals for Los Blancos.

Among that group is Brazil legend Ronaldo, a beloved figure but one who finished his Madrid career with only two more goals (104) than the oft-maligned Bale's 102. Just 12 others have struck more for a club with a glittering 117-year history.

Bale has laid on 55 more - more than the talented Isco - during his time in Madrid, and has been responsible for the sixth-most goal involvements in LaLiga, even as the club stuttered to three third-place finishes and a single title.

Standing tall on Europe's grand stage

Madrid's success under Zidane has come largely in Europe, for which Bale can take a good portion of credit.

The Wales international fired his team ahead in the 2014 triumph over rivals Atletico Madrid, notched an assist and a successful spot-kick against the same opposition two years later, and then returned from injury in time for the crushing victory over Juventus in Cardiff in 2017.

That is all without mentioning his match-winning impact in Kiev.

Bale scored twice off the bench in 2018, the first a bicycle kick that dented Liverpool's nascent comeback and the second a speculative long-range shot that smashed it into pieces.

The brace elevated him to what is now a selection of seven players - including Ronaldo - to have struck two goals or more in a Champions League final.

 

Breaking new ground for British footballers

Criticism of Bale for failing to communicate with the media in Spanish dwarfed the plaudits directed his way for venturing where few of his compatriots had gone before.

Then aged 24, the Southampton academy product spurned reported interest from Premier League heavyweights Manchester United to become the third Welshman - and first in more than 25 years - to play in LaLiga.

He is the leading British scorer (78 goals) and appearance maker (155) in the competition's history, relegating David Beckham to second place in the latter category.

Yet, while Bale has struggled to gain Zidane's acceptance, reportedly in part because of his reluctance to assimilate to life in Spain, the France legend praised Beckham for being a "truly great professional" as recently as 2013.

That was despite him once admitting his "friendship with David is little. On the pitch, we understand each other perfectly, but as I don't speak English and he doesn't speak Spanish we are a little bit lost."

Bale might justifiably feel his efforts deserve greater affection - but now he has another chance to win supporters and Zidane over.

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