In the harem scarem drama of the finest El Clasico in years, there was one figure almost entirely peripheral. As Lionel Messi scored his 500th club goal, prompting his manager to call him “the finest player in history”, as Marcelo made a bold bid to be considered the best fullback of the modern era, as Sergi Roberto seized the wider attention with an astonishing and ultimately match-sealing run to set up Messi’s last-gasp winner for Barcelona, Gareth Bale was a non-contributory participant. As the action fizzed on the Bernabeu pitch, a player bought four years ago to make a difference on nights like this was once again being attended to by Real Madrid’s medical staff.
The Welshman had been substituted after only 38 minutes, with a calf problem. It was, incredibly, his 17th injury issue since he arrived in Madrid in 2013. He had been absent from Madrid’s starting line up for three months after undergoing surgery on his troublesome ankle in November. A brief flurry of a comeback was curtailed when he was hurt during his club’s Champions League victory over Bayern Munich earlier this month. He only returned to training this week. And the Madrid medical staff informed manager Zinedine Zidane that they felt he was not fit to play in the Clasico. Zidane, however, preferred to rely on the player’s self-diagnosis and picked him.
“Bale told me he felt good and wanted to play,” said Zidane. “He was feeling good [until the injury], but you can’t control everything.”
In truth, Bale had looked tentative and off the pace in his short and frustratingly curtailed cameo. Picked alongside Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema in Madrid’s first choice front three, he appeared to lack confidence in his own physique. For much of his half hour involvement, he had struggled to make any headway. There was none of the glorious, brave running with the ball he had demonstrated when he scored a scintillating solo goal against the same opposition in the 2014 Copa Del Rey final, when he took a detour off the pitch to evade the Barca defence, and still out paced them all. This time he appeared to sink into irrelevance, his one contribution the rather fortuitous gaining of a corner from which, eventually, Madrid took the lead when Cosemiro fired home.
It was for goals like his Copa Del Rey effort which his record fee was paid. And without him able to make a difference, Barcelona were able to revive what had looked a moribund title race. Their victory means they are now top of the table on goal difference, with five games to play. Madrid have six. Though, as the Barcelona manager Luis Enrique pointed out, having a game in hand is no guarantee of delivering maximum points.
Zidane, however, was being philosophical about the wider significance of the Barcelona recovery.
“The league would not have finished had we won,” he insisted. “We still depend on ourselves.”
In his quest for what would be Madrid’s second title since 2008 (during which time Barcelona have won it six times) it would help the Frenchman enormously if he could rely on a fit and firing Gareth Bale during what is now going to be a significantly more tense run-in than many assumed. Judging by the way the player shuffled through the mixed zone after the game, refusing to engage with reporters’ queries about his condition, that seems a rather ambitious hope.