'I need to be playing week-in, week-out'
MADRID: If the summer had gone differently, Gareth Bale might have been on a plane to Switzerland on Monday to play for Manchester United against Young Boys.
He could have been readying himself for a Champions League debut at the Allianz Arena for Bayern Munich against Ajax. Or even, as Tottenham fans might have hoped, back at his old club and back to the San Siro, the scene of that spellbinding breakthrough performance in 2010.
Spurs never had the financial clout, nor Bale any inclination, to engineer a return to London. He was never much fussed about Bayern or United either, despite depositing the word "honoured" in Bild, when asked about being linked with the German champions, and despite United making it clear to Bale's representatives they should be notified if and when he decided to leave.
That scenario never looked more likely than on May 26. Bale was left out of the Champions League final team to face Liverpool, came off the bench to score with an astonishing bicycle kick, and then declared during the celebrations he would be considering his future.
"I need to be playing week-in, week-out," Bale said.
There were times last season, most notably after he was hauled off at half-time against Paris Saint-Germain, when Bale and Zinedine Zidane were not on speaking terms.
Strong form and a consistent run of games towards the end of the campaign saw relations thaw but the snub in Kiev was a final kick in the teeth. Even after the final whistle, when the cameras swarmed around the game's star player, Zidane kept his distance.
Bale wanted talks with the president, Florentino Perez, before the World Cup but there was never any prospect of Perez acting against Zidane.
While Bale had proved his worth by scoring one of the finest goals the Champions League had seen, Zidane had just led the club to a third European success in a row. He was seen as the future.
MORE BALANCED, WITHOUT RONALDO
Instead, within a week of beating Liverpool, Zidane resigned. He sent texts to a select group of senior players but the first Bale heard of the Frenchman's departure was via an official message from the club.
The meeting with Perez was shelved until a new coach was appointed and, six weeks later, Cristiano Ronaldo had departed too.
By then Bale's mind was made up to stay. Ronaldo and Bale were too different ever to be close but their relationship was never anything but respectful.
When Zidane left, Bale stayed silent. When Ronaldo left, Bale posted a gushing farewell message on Twitter.
"It has been a pleasure to play alongside you," he wrote.
But while the Portugese was there, it would always be Ronaldo's Real Madrid, not least because Ronaldo delivered consistency while Bale was too often curtailed by injury.
The front page of Madrid daily, AS, on Friday read: "Five years of Bale", with the numbers: "13 titles, 193 matches, 91 goals, 60 assists, 19 injuries, 393 days out."
Madrid begin the defence of their Champions League crown at home to Roma this week and the talk now is of a team more balanced, more united even, without Ronaldo.
The wisdom of selling though will not be judged on wins over Getafe, Girona and Leganes but Madrid's performances in the big games, the ones Ronaldo used to settle, and now Bale has the chance to rise to.
"When someone like Cristiano leaves there is always going to be a spotlight on who is going to replace him," Wales coach Ryan Giggs said earlier this month.
"But Gareth has shown his qualities in big games and that he can handle anything that is thrown at him."
The first stage of Bale's Real Madrid career, with Ronaldo, was a huge success, dampened by injury. The second stage, without Ronaldo, starts against Roma today. - AFP