This article also featured on the latest Onside Inzaghi Podcast.
Every time he touched the ball, Gareth Bale was whistled. Madrid’s desperate season petering out, having never even threatened to coalesce, the win over Eibar earlier this month proved to be little more than a chance for fans to vent their anger. After long standing accusations from supporters and the press over a lack of integration with the squad, being unable (or unwilling) to speak Spanish and playing more golf than football, a third minute heavy touch at the Bernabeu again placed the Welshman at the epicentre of Madridista’s ire. But after the club's worst season for some decades, compounded by the defeat at relegation threatened Rayo Vallecano this weekend, Bale may simply head the cue of Real players at Madrid’s airport this summer.
"We did not work for anything from minute one to minute ninety,” raged Zinedine Zidane “I am very angry and I apologize to the club and the fans." Speaking after Madrid’s loss to 19th placed Rayo on Sunday evening, the French coach’s patience had run out. “It was all bad, the attitude and the game, we didn’t give anything, not in the duels, or running, or anything… we can not play like that again." L’equipe reported the following morning that Zidane had been just as critical of his players in the dressing room at half time, as he had during the interval against Bilbao last weekend.
Previously however Zidane has staunchly defended his team, doing so after defeat at Valencia at the start of the month, explaining his team “only lacked a goal” but that was not the case here. Although Zidane conceded “I am responsible too, not just the players,” Mundo Deportivo mused that his public anger marked ‘a new stage in the relationship between the coach and the squad, increasingly distanced from each other.’
Nevertheless Madrid’s defeat was a narrow one. Although Marca Online said Madrid ‘did not deserve a draw’ the only goal came via a marginal VAR decision as Jesus Vallejo brought down Javi Guerra, the resulting 23rd minute penalty was converted by Adri Embarba. Quoting Zidane, AS’ Monday front page spoke of asking ‘for forgiveness’ for the loss. Real Midfielder Marcos Llorente said that "the fans deserve more.” Meanwhile Marca explained that the only Madrid positive came via keeper Thibaut Courtois’ display and that none of the outfield players were ‘up to the task, none are aware of what they represent and this was personified by Bale.’ Who was given his ‘umpteenth chance and not only missed it but showed that he currently disgraces Real Madrid's shirt.’
Although Bale has failed to replace Cristiano Ronaldo’s goals, he’s not alone. While Karim Benzema, who was injured for the Rayo loss, has enjoyed his best season in terms of goals since 2012, not having to play the facilitator role for Ronaldo, the rest of the attack have shared just 12 La Liga goals. Marco Asensio, Mariano Diaz, Lucas Vazquez and Vinicius, who admittedly has missed the last 9 games with injury, all contributing just a single goal each to a campaign in which the club were dramatically off the pace in the all competitions.
Madrid’s 59 La Liga goal tally is 27 worse than champions Barcelona’s, who could lead Madrid by more than 20 points come the end of the season with Atletico are now beyond reach in second. As Marca pointed out, Rayo became the 14th club to take points from Real this campaign while only four teams have failed to score against them. A Marca poll ranking Real’s squad had Marcelo, previously seen by some as Europe’s best left back, bottom after some abhorrent form. Isco meanwhile, in the team under Julen Lopetegui but cast out under Santiago Solari, ranked 14th of 25 and was described as having ‘undoubtedly the worst year of the professional career.’ The wisdom of reappointing Zidane so soon was also questioned. The trip to Rayo marked Zidane’s seventh consecutive away game without a win across both his spells in charge while, according to Mundo Deportivo, a La Liga table covering the period since the Frenchman’s return would only put Real 5th.
After such a weak season and the lack of marquee signings last summer, talk of transfers has of course been rife as reports of Zidane’s budget range from half a billion euros to less than half of that. Bale’s future however already seems decided, assuming Madrid president Florentino Perez can convince a top tier European club to pay a nine figure sum for an injury prone 29 year old who’s 15m euro salary would make a significant impact on their wage bill.
Nevertheless, as exemplified by frustrated gestures towards fans during the 3-0 over Bilbao, Bale’s relationship with the club does seem to have reached breaking point. Although Zidane did point out that even he was whistled as a player at the Bernabeu, whistles for a player clean through on goal, as Bale experienced earlier this month, are surely unprecedented. Marca however again complained Bale ‘was chosen by the club to lead the team after Cristiano's departure, but at no time has he shown the necessary level of play or mentality to support that load.’
Following the Rayo defeat Bale didn’t travel home with the rest of the squad and instead was driven separately to the airport and a private plane with Zidane stating "I don’t know if he's focused on Madrid." Although Jonathan Barnett, the players agent, insisted to BBC Wales afterwards that "Gareth is 100% committed to Real Madrid."
Should the Welshman leave or not, the arrival of Chelsea forward Eden Hazard seems ever more likely. Mundo Deportivo, who also discussed the possible signing of Spurs midfielder Christian Eriksen, quoted Chelsea coach Maurizio Sarri, who explained "I do not know if [Hazard] will continue, you should ask the club. The problem is his new contract. He will enter the last year of his deal next season, so I do not know." Zidane meanwhile insisted that French defender Raphael Varane would stay amid reports that he would seek a new challenge this summer.
While the defeat to Rayo was ‘embarrassing’ as the Catalan based Mundo Deportivo put it, the three points were desperately needed for Vallecano. Anything else would have all but confirmed their relegation and despite Madrid’s poor form defeat seemed likely with pivotal forward and top scorer Raul de Tomas not allowed to play as part of his loan agreement with Real. With three games to play, Rayo now have some semblance of hope. Although they are six points from safety in 19th, their remaining games all come against teams around them. Trips to Levante (16th) and Celta Vigo (15th) sandwich the visit of 18th placed Valladolid. Three wins could be enough.
Madrid however are desperate for their season to end. Being eighteen points behind Barcelona and having no chance of overhauling Atletico Madrid for second will compound the malaise underlined by the 4-1 mauling from Ajax to end their three year run as European champions not to mention a semi final Copa del Rey defeat to perennial rivals Barca. To make things worse, Barca are likely to again secure a domestic double having clinched the league title this weekend before the cup final against Valencia next month. Messi and co are also desperate to steal Madrid’s European crown after the embarrassing quarter final exit to Roma last year to complete a treble.
Much like Barcelona’s superb double was tainted by Madrid’s third consecutive European title last season, Madrid will fear that their crisis could yet be worsened by Barcelona’s success. Worst of all, as they’ve shown domestically in the last decade - winning just two La Liga titles to Barcelona’s seven, Madrid are unable to do anything about it.
by Adam White.