Madrid: Gareth Bale is back but returns not so much to a hero’s welcome but a Real Madrid team doing rather well without him.
When Cristiano Ronaldo left last summer, 45 days after Bale’s brilliant double in the Champions League final, the belief was they had their ready-made successor. The club’s president Florentino Perez was convinced.
It started well, with three goals in as many games, but the team shrivelled under Julen Lopetegui and Bale, like the rest of the squad, faded. Then his fitness broke down too.
There was a groin strain in October and an ankle problem in December. Both were minor but a calf injury at the start of January proved more serious and Bale was out for three weeks.
In that time, Madrid rebounded off a defeat by Real Sociedad to beat Leganes, Real Betis, Sevilla and Girona. They lost a second leg to Leganes in the Copa del Rey, but the tie was all but won.
Results were good but performances even better. Their 2-0 victory over Sevilla was probably their most complete display of the season while in last weekend’s 4-2 win against Espanyol, when Bale came on and scored, Madrid seemed to have their swagger back.
“We are showing we haven’t forgotten how to play,” said Luka Modric. “This is the Madrid we want to see.”
Chasing down Barcelona and a 10-point gap in La Liga will likely prove impossible but with the Champions League knock-out stages just around the corner, this gathering of momentum is timely.
The dilemma now for coach Santiago Solari is whether to restore his marquee players, like Bale and the fit-again Marco Asensio, or remain loyal to those that have sparked his team into life.
“Decisions are always made in the moment,” Solari said, when asked if Bale would come back in. “We will choose according to each game and take various factors into account.”
Benzema scaling new heights
Karim Benzema has been Madrid’s stand-out player this season and scaled new heights in recent weeks. He scored twice against Espanyol and then two more against Girona on Thursday in the Copa del Rey. He has five goals in his last three games, a return he last managed in January 2016.
Benzema will never get close to Ronaldo’s numbers but hopes that he might be liberated by the Portuguese’s departure are coming to fruition.
“I am sorry for those who only discovered Benzema last week,” Solari said on Thursday. “Karim has been doing this for many years, he has great talent and is a team player. Although it’s true, he’s in a great run of form.”
Close behind Benzema for impact has been Vinicius Junior, the 18-year-old Brazilian who was supposed to spend his debut season bedding in with the reserves.
Instead, Vinicius is arguably the face of Solari’s tenure so far, a youngster undaunted by expectations and taking his chance to excel. “Vinicius is football,” Solari said last month. “We are delighted with his progress.”
Most likely to give way is perhaps Lucas Vazquez, on the right of the front three, but he has a strong case too.
Madrid have won 14 of the 17 matches in which Vazquez has started under Solari, a trend seemingly not lost on the Argentinian, who has named Vazquez in 11 of his last 12 starting line-ups, the one omission due to suspension.
A glum-faced Bale was on the bench for the latest win over Girona, before coming on for 23 minutes in the second half.
It is possible Solari was preserving the Welshman, wary of pushing him too much too soon. More instructive will be whether he starts against Alaves in La Liga on Sunday, six days before a city derby away to Atletico Madrid. The pressure will be on to deliver.
By Sunday night, Real could be eight points behind Atletico, who play away at Real Betis earlier in the day, and 13 adrift of Barcelona, who are at home to Valencia on Saturday.
Barca will be chasing a ninth league win in a row but Valencia, after a miserable start, are improving. They have won four out of their last five in all competitions and have their sights set on the top four.
Levante v Getafe (4pm), Real Sociedad v Athletic Bilbao (7.15pm), Barcelona v Valencia (9.30pm), Celta Vigo v Sevilla (11.45pm)
Villarreal v Espanyol (3pm), Real Betis v Atletico Madrid (7.15pm), Eibar v Girona (9.30pm), Real Madrid v Alaves (11.45pm)
Rayo Vallecano v Leganes (midnight)