Brilliant Bale set for centre stage
The UEFA Super Cup may not only provide Real Madrid with their first chance of silverware this season, but also showcase a changing of the guard that few expected to happen so soon -- if at all.
While Los Blancos talisman Cristiano Ronaldo seemingly limps into Tuesday night's clash against La Liga rivals Sevilla in Cardiff, hometown boy Gareth Bale surges in with the kind of preparation that suggests he could well be Madrid's main man this season, despite Ronaldo and the addition of World Cup stars James Rodriguez and Toni Kroos to bolster Carlo Ancelotti's attacking options.
One swallow does not make a summer, but the contrasting preseason experienced by Madrid's "Dos Torpedos" points toward an interesting battle on who will be the club's star man this season. So far it's advantage Bale.
It's a situation poster boy Ronaldo has not experienced since joining the Spanish giants from Manchester United. Unveiled in front of a packed Bernabeu, the Ballon d'Or holder has surpassed his teammates by a distance and has been Madrid's standout star man since his arrival. Think of Barcelona and think of Lionel Messi, think of Madrid and think of Ronaldo. Los Merengues may be a club blessed with some of the best players on the planet, but none have touched the 29-year-old during his five years in the Spanish capital.
Not until now. Not until last season. Ronaldo may have scooped the Ballon d'Or, the biggest individual prize in football, but Bale came to the fore when it mattered most. With Madrid's No.7 missing for the Copa del Rey final against Barcelona it was the former Tottenham man who took matters into his own hands and scored arguably the goal of the season to help Madrid to their first trophy of the campaign with a 2-1 extra-time victory over the Catalans. With Ronaldo below-par in the Champions League final just months later it was Bale who notched the crucial goal to fire his side ahead for the first time and put them on course for La Decima.
Bale's first season at Madrid came after a preseason thwarted by injury and with huge pressure on his shoulders; not only playing for arguably the biggest club in the world but also having the biggest price tag in history. There were some indifferent performances along the way, but for the most part Bale passed his test with flying colours. All this while Ronaldo, a player he looks up to and idolises, struggled through the crucial final months of the season with injury.
Now, with a year under his belt and with a full preseason behind him, big things are expected. So big that he could dethrone Ronaldo as Madrid's main man whether his Portuguese teammate likes it or not. The process could start in an apt place on Tuesday night when the Welshman returns to his hometown Cardiff. For once, he will be the centre of attention and it's something he may need to get used to.
A full preseason and not being involved in the World Cup has seen Bale quite literally add weight to the argument he will be Los Blancos' biggest threat this term. The 25-year-old has followed in Ronaldo's footsteps in working the weights machines this summer and has added power to the pace that treated him so well. He will not be such a pushover from here on in.
In contrast, Ronaldo will head into the Super Cup with his fitness continuing to be an issue. Despite an early exit in the World Cup with Portugal, questions still hang over a problematic knee injury that left him below-par in Brazil and in Lisbon for the Champions League final. Ronaldo has not been at 100 percent since April, despite claims from the player and the club to the contrary. Just when he will be fully fit is up for debate, but reports in Spain suggest he will play in the Welsh capital despite the advice from some doctors that it would be best not to.
Ronaldo wants to be the central figure, whether he's producing five-star performances or not. Last year, Ancelotti admitted the Portuguese would be the man to take control of penalties and free-kicks, but Bale proved he can be more dangerous with the latter, with Ronaldo's free-kick success ratio not matching his star status. Although Bale will be afforded the odd set piece here and there, that trend is expected to continue. Among the Madrid squad and the management, Ronaldo will continue to be the leader but out on the pitch expect Bale to shine brightest.
He enjoyed a fine debut campaign in Spain, and things will only get better in his second season. Former Spurs teammate Luka Modric enjoyed a much stronger second term at the Bernabeu, and if Bale enjoys a similar boost in performances then it could well be he, and not Ronaldo, who is challenging for the 2014 Ballon d'Or come January.
Ronaldo will have plenty to say about that, of course, and that competition can only mean good things for the pair and Madrid for the forthcoming campaign.