Gareth Bale’s relationship with Zinedine Zidane will come to a crossroads when Real Madrid play Liverpool in the Champions League final on Saturday.
The pair have not seen eye-to-eye for some time, ever since Zidane jettisoned the Welshman for Real’s last 16 first leg game at home to Paris Saint-Germain in February.
With their La Liga challenge all but over, Zidane’s reputation hinged on a run in Europe and dropping Bale delivered a resounding message about a lack of trust when it mattered most.
But breaking point arrived in April, in the quarter-finals, in the second leg at home to Juventus. Bale had scored three goals in his previous three games, six in five including matches for Wales, and he was rewarded with a start at the Santiago Bernabeu.
Zidane, however, hauled him off at half-time, with Real trailing Juve 2-0. At best, it seemed the Frenchman was apportioning blame to Bale. At worst, it seemed like punishment by public humiliation.
“It was not to punish Gareth but something had to change,” Zidane said after the match. “I was not happy with the approach.”
Bale felt harshly treated, he became noticeably down around the squad and his intensity dropped in training. Sources told AFP that Bale and Zidane were barely on speaking terms around this period.
Three days after Real scraped past Juventus, via Cristiano Ronaldo’s last-gasp penalty, they faced a lengthy trip to Malaga and several key players, including Bale, were left out.
Real insisted they were rested but while the likes of Ronaldo, Toni Kroos, Luka Modric and Marcelo returned for the weekend’s game against Athletic Bilbao, Bale again found himself sat on the bench.
By the time he had been overlooked for both semi-final legs against Bayern Munich, the 28-year-old had started only one of his last five matches.
– ‘I’ve been in good form’ –
“It is always going to happen in a side like ours,” Zidane said. “There are players in good form and in the team, who are playing well.”
If that was the lowest point, there has been an upturn in recent weeks, in both Bale’s form and his connection with Zidane.
A brilliant goal against Barcelona, the highlight of a rather underwhelming performance, provided a spark, followed by two more goals and a man-of-the-match display against Celta Vigo.
Bale scored against Villarreal on Saturday to make it five goals in his last four starts.
It means the final against Liverpool this weekend represents an acid test.
The expectation in recent weeks had been Bale would again give way to less spectacular, but more defensively diligent, team-mates – Lucas Vazquez, Karim Benzema or Isco – but this latest surge will be difficult to ignore.
Even in an interview with Real Madrid TV on Tuesday, Bale pointedly said when asked about his form: “I feel like I’ve been in good form for a while.”
Sources have told AFP that Bale’s first choice this summer is to resist offers from England and stay at Real Madrid, where he enjoys the lifestyle, the support of those higher up the club, and where his family are settled.
But his persistence has its limits.
If Zidane rejuvenates Bale for Real’s biggest game of the season, it would continue the upward momentum and create the possibility for a fresh start next season.
If he disregards Bale’s form in Kiev and leaves him on the bench, reconciliation becomes distinctly unlikely.
“He is playing very well, he has scored many goals recently,” Zidane said on Tuesday. “Not only that but he has been very consistent. He has not played so much but the last three games he has played he has played well.”
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