Gareth Bale is ready to be the leader at Real Madrid
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- It's always hard to divine much from preseason, especially one that's truncated by players away on post-World Cup vacations, extreme amounts of air travel and the need to be mindful about easing back into action after weeks away. Young talent often gets the bulk of the playing time to show whether they belong in the first-team squad or out on loan for the season. Endless subs make it dizzying to track who's playing, and how well.
But one player who's very much been central to Real's summer is Gareth Bale. With Cristiano Ronaldo out of town and hunting for fresh accolades with Juventus, the Welsh galactico remains with the Spanish giants, and after a season of speculation about his future, all seems clear: he's here to stay and he's ready to make this Real Madrid team his own.
It's vital that they let him, too.
While the incandescent skill of Marco Asensio, Isco, Luka Modric and Toni Kroos will continue to drive Los Blancos forward in 2018-19, Bale is emerging from beneath a cloud of injuries and mystery to show that he ought to be the one behind the wheel. The center-forward spot, currently kept warm by Karim Benzema, could be his. Either of the wing spots are available, too. It's seemingly up to him as to what he wants to do.
Watching him in the first half of Tuesday night's 2-1 victory over AS Roma in the International Champions Cup -- in which he set up the first goal in brilliant fashion and calmly scored the second -- one senses that the possibilities for this season have energized a player sorely in need of inspiration.
The opener, after just two minutes and following a half-hour delay due to inclement weather, showcased his ability to play provider. Finding Asensio in space on the right edge of the box with a perfectly weighted outside-of-the-boot pass, we saw the vision and technical ability that made him such a commodity.
Then came his turn to score: Dani Carvajal floated a long ball for the Wales international to chase, and once the ball was under his control, Bale was confident with his infield cut and delayed left-foot finish for Real's second goal.
Though he was withdrawn after 56 minutes without making an impact in a sub-heavy second half, Bale had once again done enough to give his team another victory and some much-needed fluidity in attack.
Bale played a total of 149 minutes in Real's three ICC matches, but two goals and one assist represented a tidy resumption of form for a player who made history in May's Champions League final against Liverpool. Any thoughts as to his suitability for Real should have been put to rest beyond that point, but a strong preseason following a summer of rest have shown him continue that game-changing form.
It speaks volumes of Bale's endless potential, even at 29 years old, that 21 goals and six assists in 44 appearances for Real (all competitions) was somehow perceived as not good enough for the demands of the Bernabeu crowd. Perhaps it pales in comparison to Ronaldo's output, but with the five-time Ballon d'Or winner out of the picture, one would expect Bale's numbers to skyrocket.
Bale's injury history (he missed a total of 301 days but just 63 Real games since 2013, according to Transfermarkt) could threaten his upward trajectory. But after five seasons serving as a productive understudy, the stage is set for him to take charge.
While there's still a sense of uncertainty as to whether club president Florentino Perez will make any moves in the wake of Ronaldo's abrupt exit, there should be no such doubts about Bale.