Zinedine Zidane took charge of Real Madrid on Monday just eight months after quitting and it could spell trouble for a former Manchester United target.
Mata outlived Jose Mourinho, the man who put an end to his Chelsea career, at Manchester United but it would come as a considerable surprise for Bale to do the same at the Santiago Bernabéu after Florentino Pérez, Real’s president, convinced Zidane to plug the holes in his sinking ship by handing the Frenchman a contract until 2022.
Real’s season was effectively ended last week when Ajax reversed their Champions League last-16 first leg deficit by scoring four at the Bernabéu to end the holders’ quest for a fourth-consecutive title, after Barcelona gained superiority in their head-to-head record with Real for the first time since 1932 with a Copa del Rey semi-final second leg victory in the Spanish capital.
t cost Santiago Solari, the club’s second manager this season, his job and Zidane, seemingly reinvigorated, promised change at his unveiling.
“Now we must finish this season well, and prepare very well for next season,” he said, with Real third in La Liga, 12 points adrift of Barcelona. “We start that from tomorrow. We will change things, for sure. We must change things for the years to come. But now is not about that – the important thing is I am back.”
Perhaps the biggest shift imaginable happened just six weeks after Zidane’s resignation caught Real’s hierarchy off guard. Cristiano Ronaldo, the club’s record scorer, left La Liga for Juventus.
Bale, the forward who had hitherto existed in Ronaldo’s shadow, saw his status at the club shift from a pending departure to the marquee name in almost an instant
Manchester United’s ears had pricked up when four days prior to Zidane’s exit when Bale, frustrated by a lack of opportunities, put his future at the club in doubt after scoring a phenomenal brace in Real’s Champions League final victory against Liverpool on May 26.
“I need to be playing week in, week out and that hasn’t been happening for one reason or the other,” the 29-year-old – whose sole start in the knockout stages of the competition saw him hauled off by Zidane at half-time – said with Kiev’s Olimpiyskiy Stadium still stunned from his overhead kick against Jurgen Klopp’s side. “I had a five- or six-week injury at the start of the season and I’ve been fit ever since so obviously now I’ll have to sit down and discuss with my agent in the summer and take it from there.”
So far this season, however, Bale failed to fill the void left by Ronaldo. On just three occasions has the Wales international completed 90 minutes in the league, the last of which came in November, and he has registered 13 goals across 34 appearances in all competitions.
His wish to play regularly has not been forthcoming and, on the evidence of his strained relationship with Zidane the first time round, it would take a remarkable turn of events for the newly-installed manager to build his new-look Real project around the man who United first tried to sign as an 18-year-old from Southampton.
Spurs chairman Daniel Levy encouraged United to enter the auction for Bale in 2013 even though he had decided on a move to Real Madrid months earlier. United actually outbid Real that summer and the 13-times European Cup winners have rebuffed enquiries from Ed Woodward since.
Bale was so far down the pecking order at the end of last season at Madrid that Isco, Marco Asensio and Lucas Vázquez were often preferred to him in a forward line with Ronaldo and Karim Benzema. Even with Ronaldo gone, the emergence of the 18-year-old Vinícius Júnior has cost Bale’s chances dearly. What’s more, Bale’s agent, Jonathan Barnett, saw fit to publicly criticise Real’s supporters for their treatment of his client earlier this month.
“This generation of Real fans will be talking about Gareth’s goals for years to come,” he said. “They should be ashamed of themselves. Those fans should be kissing his feet.
Real, then, have a seemingly unpopular forward with four Champions League winners’ medals in his collection sat on the bench most weeks. Manchester United, meanwhile, have had a 30-year-old Chile international on theirs for most of the season whose contribution has varied between little and none.
Alexis Sanchez’s showing in the Champions League last-16 first leg was so disappointing that even Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, the eternal optimist, was lost for words.
“I can’t do anything about Alexis Sanchez,” United’s caretaker manager said. “When he plays he needs to finds himself because we know there’s a quality player there.”
The concern is, over a year into his time as a United player, whether Sanchez has anything left to give after making well over 600 senior appearances in his 14-year first-team career. The former Arsenal forward looks to be suffering the sort of burnout that cut Wayne Rooney’s career short.
Sanchez was supposed to be the world-class talent to guide United’s attacking play to new heights but, to date, and not for the want of trying, the former Barcelona man has proven more of a hindrance.
You wonder how Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and even Mason Greenwood would develop with a player of Bale’s calibre as a mentor at Old Trafford.
Bale’s wages could prove problematic, of course, as would maneuvering Sanchez’s record earnings off the pay roll at Old Trafford, but the Welshman, who Ryan Giggs deemed ‘a Manchester United player’, has the experience of winning trophies that United’s squad lacks and might represent a gamble worth taking if United are to challenge for titles next season.