Gareth Bale is the main man now at Real Madrid. The former Tottenham midfielder has spent his five years in Spain in the shadow of Cristiano Ronaldo, but his sixth season already looks like being rather different.
After Zinedine Zidane’s side beat Liverpool to claim their third successive Champions League crown in May, both Bale and Ronaldo hinted afterwards that they may leave. If anything, though, it seemed as if the Welshman would go and the Portuguese would stay.
In the end, however, the opposite occurred. Ronaldo surprisingly departed to join Juventus in early July and as soon as he had gone, that made Bale’s situation different. Suddenly, there was the chance for him to be the leader in this team.
Ironically, he already had been in the pair’s final game together. In the Champions League final, it was Bale and not Ronaldo who led Los Blancos to victory with the crucial second and third goals in Kiev, the first of which was a stunning overhead kick.
Pre-season has seen Bale in fantastic form again. There was a superb strike in a 3-1 win Juventus, then another great goal and a sublime assist for Marco Asensio as Real beat Roma 2-1, also in the International Champions Cup.
According to reports in Spain, Lopetegui has told Bale not to look to fill Ronaldo’s role, but to find his own space in the team, to be himself. Clearly, he has the support that was sometimes lacking in the past with Cristiano around.
When the teams were announced for the Santiago Bernabeu Trophy game against AC Milan on Saturday night, Bale’s name was read out last, an honour previously reserved for Ronaldo, while his goals from Kiev have been edited prominently into the video which is shown when Madrid’s anthem is played before kick-off.
On the pitch itself, Bale began on the right, with Isco inside and Asensio on the left, those three behind Benzema and ahead of Casemiro and Toni Kroos, with Luka Modric starting on the bench after returning to training only on Wednesday.
The Welshman was given freedom to run and was a constant threat, coming close early on with a low curling effort and scoring Madrid’s second goal from close range in a 3-1 win as Lopetegui’s side came from a goal down to win the Bernabeu Trophy, the club’s traditional season warm-up at home.
Benzema had headed home to give Real the lead after two minutes, only for Gonzalo Higuain to level for AC Milan with an impressive long-range effort against his former club moments later.
Bale bundled home from a corner late in the first half, but there was a new look to Madrid’s play, with patient passing and fewer crosses from the Spanish side. Lopetegui’s fingerprints are already all over this team. And after an array of changes, Borja Mayoral made it 3-1 right at the end.
There was also an ovation for Keylor Navas, with no game yet for new signing Thibaut Courtois, and loud appreciation for Modric from the home fans as he warmed up and also when he came on, despite the fact that he had flirted with a possible departure this summer.
It remains to be seen how Lopetegui will accommodate all of his stars in the starting line-up, but Bale is clearly the new main man at Real Madrid and that is just how the club want it to be as they shape up for a season which starts with the UEFA Super Cup against Atletico on Wednesday.
The Welshman will be absolutely key in this first campaign without Ronaldo since 2008-09, and Madrid will only hope he can stay fit and injury free for as much as possible in 2018-19.