Gareth Bale will define his Real Madrid career under Rafa Benitez in 2015-16
When Carlo Ancelotti was presented as Real Madrid manager in the summer of 2013, the Spanish media nicknamed him "the fixer." A man to come in and pour cold water over the fires started by his predecessor Jose Mourinho. Those fires have long since burned out, but there is still some fixing to do in order for the 10-time European champions to be fully functional again.
The Italian's calm and tranquil approach, one that brought a "family" atmosphere to the Madrid camp, has left a lasting impression with few problems for Rafa Benitez, his successor, to deal with. Benitez still has one thing to fix at the Santiago Bernabeu, however, and he goes by the name of Gareth Bale.
Twelve months ago the former Tottenham Hotspur man had enjoyed a dream first campaign in Spain. Not only had he produced an impressive return of 21 goals and 16 assists across La Liga and the Champions League, he had scored big goals at crucial times. His stunning winner in the Copa del Rey final against Barcelona was a personal highlight and his campaign got better with a decisive goal in the Champions League final. He had hit the big time and succeeded.
A year on and the Welshman has suffered more than his fair share of the infamous Bernabeu booing and looked set for an early exit from the Spanish capital under the spotlight of plenty of fan and media pressure. Manchester United looked prepared to offer the jet-heeled attacker a way back to his comfort zone of the Premier League and Madrid would receive a huge chunk of the £86 million they paid for the player just two years ago.
Reports suggested Bale had clashed with talisman Cristiano Ronaldo, and his lack of the Spanish language left him distant from the rest of the team. The most expensive player in the world had seemingly gone from hero to villain in less than 12 months and the only way seemed to be the highway. Real Madrid had chewed him up and looked set to spit him back out. He would not have been the first and he would not be the last.
Bale has always had at least one supporter throughout, however, and he is the only man he needs support from. Madrid president Florentino Perez is not ready to give up on his most expensive Galactico and that will ensure he gets at least another season to get it right at Madrid. Next season is set to be Bale's most important yet -- for club and country.
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Benitez has been charged with winning trophies at Madrid, but he has also been charged with getting Bale up alongside the likes of Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Neymar. That was the idea from the start, but it hasn't quite worked out that way. Perez has kept faith and part of the reason he picked Benitez to succeed Ancelotti was the former Liverpool and Valencia coach's desire to take Bale to the top.
It may have been as much through convenience as necessity that Benitez traveled to watch Bale feature for Wales in the Euro 2016 qualifying match against Belgium last Friday, but it also spoke volumes. The 55-year-old is known for his attention to detail, and although he has a family home not too far from Cardiff, his visit to see his most expensive player score the winner in a crucial victory over Belgium tied in well with reports that he is to make Bale the central figure of his new-look Madrid.
The pair spoke in the hotel before the match and it seemingly buoyed Bale, who helped send Wales closer to a first appearance in a major international tournament for 58 years. He scored the winner and coach Chris Coleman poured praise on his talisman for leaving nothing on the pitch. Bale gave his all not only for his country but for his new club coach watching on from the stands.
Benitez may have made time to watch as many of his new charges in action for their nations as possible over the weekend, including seeing Cristiano Ronaldo notch his third hat trick in as many matches, but his personal visit to see Bale not only on the pitch but before the match in the Wales camp was telling.
Former Liverpool defender Jamie Carragher revealed his former coach did the same before taking control at Anfield and the move rubbed off well on him, Steven Gerrard and Michael Owen -- three pillars of the team at the time. Perez and Madrid fans will hope Benitez's visit to see Bale will have a similar positive impact for the forthcoming campaign. It certainly made an immediate impression.
Benitez will have noted how Bale was given a role without limits for his country and how the team made him the central figure of their attacks -- with success to match. That same freedom may not be offered to him at the Bernabeu, especially with a much stronger squad around him including a certain 61-goal Ronaldo, but it should help free him from a role out on the right that he has not complained about publicly but that has not suited him for the most part.
Ancelotti's favoured 4-3-3 is set to be scrapped for a 4-2-3-1 lineup under the Spaniard, and that could result in a starting role out on the left or further in the centre for the 25-year-old. Indeed, Benitez's desire for rotations could see Bale play across the attack, including the No. 9 role, and that could help him and the team. Plenty will depend on Ronaldo's desire, or lack of it, to play centrally, but the indications are that Benitez will give more weight to the Welshman.
Bale's recuperation will be a subplot to the ultimate aim of winning everything Madrid compete for this season, but it is not an entirely new role for Benitez. During his short stint at Chelsea, owner Roman Abramovich took the failing form of Fernando Torres into account when making Benitez an unpopular appointment at Stamford Bridge. Torres was another big-money signing struggling, albeit at a more alarming level than Bale, and Benitez at least lifted him from the disastrous levels he had encountered on swapping Liverpool for London.
Benitez's task will not only be to get Bale feeling comfortable in a position on the pitch, but it will be to get his teammates to fully trust him and to get him more integral in the squad both on and off the pitch. The Welshman has been too reliant on his old Spurs teammate Luka Modric in the past, and it was no coincidence that Bale struggled this term with the Croatian on the sidelines through injury for a vast period of the campaign.
As a player, Bale is expected to get more one-on-one time with Benitez, and that too should only help. His new coach's attention to detail will not go unnoticed, and although it may not sit too popular with some, that detail should be perfect for a player who is striving desperately not to be a flash in the pan in the Spanish capital.
Bale, too, will need to put in his fair share of hard work. Benitez is expected to ask more of him defensively, as with the rest of the squad, and while players such as James Rodriguez and Isco succumbed to the team demands of Ancelotti, Bale often looked lackadaisical in his defensive duties. That aspect will have to improve and Benitez will try to get that out of him.
Next season will be a huge test for both Bale and Benitez, but if the new Madrid coach can get the best from the Welshman, and keep the harmony among his star names, silverware should not be absent come the end of it. With Bale possibly leading Wales in Euro 2016, the next campaign could define the Madrid man as more than just the most expensive player on the planet.