Gareth Bale was treated to a rare standing ovation at the Bernaebeu on Saturday when he was taken off in the second half after a splendid display against Celta Vigo. The Welshman’s confidence is soaring following four goals in his past three starts for Real Madrid, two of which can be defined as golazos.
“It will be a pain in the head to pick an 11 for the Champions League final,” Zinedine Zidane said after his side ran riot against Celta. But Bale is sure to start in Kiev, as he is the one player who can go toe-to-toe with Mohamed Salah for pure, unadulterated attacking flair.
Salah just won the Premier League Player of the Year award, and it wasn’t long ago that Bale was picking up the same silverware before being whisked to the capital of Spain for a then-record transfer fee. There have been some injury-plagued spells mixed with an incredible trophy haul for the Welshman in Madrid — including three Champions Leagues, a league title and a Copa del Rey — but this year, he has not missed a single minute due to injury and has dug his heels in, fighting for a place in the team and scoring 13 in 20 in La Liga in the process.
That consistency has been rewarded, and Real Madrid are reaping the benefits, too, at the perfect time for their attempt to win three Champions League titles in a row.
Bale scored twice during the 6-0 rout over Celta, one of them a reminder of his firepower in front of goal; both Isco and Karim Benzema started, too, with the former getting on the score sheet with his own, more delicate, curler into the bottom corner. Cristiano Ronaldo, meanwhile, is going to be “150 percent” fit for the final in Kiev on May 26 against Liverpool. That leaves seven players vying for three places. Zidane’s headache is going to be a thumping one.
His back four and goalkeeper are decided, provided Dani Carvajal makes a recovery as he is expected to from a hamstring issue. Toni Kroos and Luka Modric will start, too, along with Ronaldo given the assurances we have been offered regarding his fitness. After that, it depends on how Zidane decides to play. Casemiro, Mateo Kovacic, Marco Asensio, Lucas Vazquez, Bale, Isco and Benzema will all do battle for the final three places in the side as competition simmers nicely in the buildup to the Champions League final.
One thing Zidane has toyed with recently has been the exclusion of Casemiro. If the game against Liverpool is going to be as volatile and attacking as everyone thinks it will, why waste Casemiro in a defensive role when you can play another attacking player to tip the scales? Kovacic is an option, but given Liverpool tend to do most of their attacking on the flanks — 36 percent down the right and 34 percent on the left, according to WhoScored — it might be wiser to deploy pace out wide to counter that offensive assault from the sides.
The other thought is that Isco will be too slow and stagnant in a game that will be played exclusively on the counterattack by both sides. The counterargument to that line of thought is that playing the creative midfielder on the left and allowing him to drift inside, with Ronaldo as a striker, will mean Marcelo has the freedom on the left-hand side to make an impact; it also means Isco is playing in the same position where he does most of his damage under Julen Lopetegui. This also depends on just how worried Zidane is about Salah, however, because a wing with Isco and Marcelo leaves very few options as far as defending goes.
It is difficult to see Zidane turn his back on Benzema at this juncture, especially after he scored twice against Bayern and has rekindled some form in recent weeks. One of the reasons he remained true to the French striker during his most trying time in a Real Madrid jersey, however, is because he had no other options. Since Bale’s emergence as a potential difference-maker, that has changed significantly.
Real Madrid still have another game to go, away against Villarreal in La Liga, and things might become a little bit clearer then. They could also get a whole lot more confusing, as Zidane might look to rest his stars and muddy the waters for any Liverpool scouts watching on in an effort to get a feel for how Real Madrid want to play.
All eyes will be on Salah in the buildup to the final to see what he can do on the biggest stage of them all. But Bale could very well steal the show given his recent form. Spanish sports daily Marca said “Bale has an obsession: to be in the starting lineup in Kiev” in its Monday edition. He seems to have convinced Zidane of his credentials on that front. Now, his attention will turn to doing damage to Liverpool’s defence.
Robbie is based in Madrid and is one of ESPN FC’s Real Madrid bloggers. Twitter: @robbiejdunne