Gareth Bale's setback signals 'BBC' ship has sailed for Real Madrid
"We've missed having Gareth available," Zinedine Zidane said ahead of his side's fixture against Las Palmas a week ago.
The Wales forward had returned to training the previous week and there were whispers that he may even sneak onto the bench for the visit of the Canary Islanders. Zidane, though, had learned his lesson about rushing players back with Bale and Raphael Varane suffering swift breakdowns after returning from injury prematurely. In any case, there was little to be gained by taking the risk against a side in the relegation places.
Zidane will have been rubbing his hands together at the prospect of having his first-choice forward line at his disposal for two uninterrupted weeks during the international break. The Frenchman was gifted an unexpected boost when Fernando Santos elected to spare Cristiano Ronaldo Portugal's friendlies while Karim Benzema's continuing Les Bleus exile gave the Real boss the opportunity to work with the "BBC" with full focus on the Madrid derby -- a must-not-lose game if not quite a must-win.
Now, Zidane's long vigil to reunite the "BBC" will continue for at least another month after Bale suffered a muscle injury in training on Friday.
It is yet another thwarted opportunity for Bale, Benzema and Ronaldo to address their quickly evaporating reputation as one of the most feared strike formations in the world. Bale had shown flashes of form before he succumbed to another recurrence of the calf issue that has dogged his Real Madrid career Sept. 26 in Dortmund. The Welshman's stunning volley and an assist in the Westfalenstadion hinted at a timely return to something approaching his best, but Bale's stop-start Bernabeu career was summed up when the injury flared again in Germany. He has not featured since.
The last time the "BBC" were together on the pitch was on April 23 when Real fell to a 3-2 Clasico defeat in the Bernabeu. Bale did not last until half-time, limping off to be replaced by Marco Asensio.
Zidane would in all likelihood have fielded the "BBC" in the Metropolitano on Nov. 18, which would have meant a switch back to a 4-3-3 and the benching of Asensio and Isco, assuming his first-choice midfield three were available. Given that the Spain internationals are two of very few Madrid players operating at anywhere near last season's level, it would have been a hugely unpopular move. It also could have backfired spectacularly against an Atletico side who, although experiencing a rough patch of their own, are quite capable of adding a further fly to Real's ointment. Playing Bale in a losing side may finally have turned even the staunchest Zidane supporters against the Real coach.
Putting the issue off for another month is beneficial to Zidane with his side struggling for form in the league. In December, Real face a challenging run of fixtures against Athletic, Sevilla and Barcelona punctuated by the Club World Cup, a sideshow Zidane would surely prefer not to attend immediately ahead of a Clasico. It makes sense to maintain the status quo for now instead of tearing up an evolving blueprint in favour of placing this season's eggs in a dust-covered basket labelled "BBC."
Real Madrid have a better win rate without the "BBC" on the pitch and Bale's availability is becoming an infrequent luxury. In total, he has now been absent through injury 19 times during his Bernabeu career, missing 73 games across all competitions.
Zidane would be wise not to hang too much hope on Bale kick-starting Real's Liga campaign, or indeed to assume Ronaldo will simply find his scoring form without the side attempting to shake things up in attack. The Portuguese has found the net only 16 times in the league in 2017. Edinson Cavani and Robert Lewandowski have scored almost double (30) over the same period. Leo Messi has 37.
Zidane claimed that formation is not an issue before the Las Palmas game, but Ronaldo has no love of the central role being forced upon him in the absence of Bale. A way has to be found to get the machinery rolling again. Madrid-based sports daily AS has taken to referring to Zidane's front three as the "bbC." It was an eye-catching gimmick, but one now blinded by hard evidence.
A new acronym is needed, and not for just for headline aesthetics. The "CIA"? The "ABC"? Zidane clearly does not feel adding an "M" is the answer: Borja Mayoral has featured for just 102 Liga minutes this season yet has as many goals to his name as Ronaldo and Benzema. At what point does the Real boss eschew his faith in youth and dip into the transfer market?
Madrid's "Sacred Cows," as they are dubbed in the Spanish media, are difficult to shift when fit. But it is a problematic calf -- or any part of Bale's leg -- that will dictate Zidane's strategy from January onward. Any offer around the €30-40 million mark for Bale should be seriously considered.
Rob Train covers Real Madrid and the Spanish national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @Cafc13Rob.