Gareth Bale was once again feeling the heat of fans and pundits around the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu after Real Madrid fans second Clasico in four days last weekend.
Welsh Galactico Bale does not often react to abuse from Spanish fans, or even notice most of what is written in the local media.
But this time the winger - or at least his agent Jonathan Barnett - has bitten back after being whistled by many of the 81,000 Bernabeu crowd when substituted early in Saturday’s La Liga defeat to Barcelona.
“[Bernabeu] fans are a disgrace,” Barnett told ESPN. “They will be speaking about him and his goals for years to come. The [local] press are also a disgrace, but they are less important. We’re fed up of fake stories that he’s leaving. Gareth deserves the greatest of respect.”
Many reporters around the Spanish capital had also singled out Bale for blame during the post-match coverage. “Fed up with Bale,” said newspaper AS, while rival outlet Marca claimed unnamed leaders in the Madrid dressing-room were unhappy that coach Santi Solari had chosen him for such a key game.
Shots fired at Bale when Madrid are struggling is nothing new. The previous weekend he was heavily criticised for apparent snubs of teammate Lucas Vazquez and fitness coach Antonio Pintus during a 2-1 La Liga win at Levante. However, another TV angle of the incident with Vazquez did not look so damning while Solari took responsibility for the ‘misunderstanding’ over the warm-up issue.
That Bale converted the penalty to bring Solari’s team their only victory in their last four games was less commented upon than the 30-year-old’s poor Spanish language skills and claims of his preference for golf over football.
There is a real sense of deja vu about all of this as both Madrid and Bale were in a similar position last year. Then coach Zinedine Zidane was upset at his team falling behind Barca in the title race, and the former Tottenham winger had dropped out of the Frenchman’s favoured starting XI. Three months later, a fired-up Bale entered from the bench in Kiev, scoring one of the European Cup’s most spectacular goals as Liverpool were beaten 3-1. Hence, Barnett’s comment about the short memories of those Madrid fans.
Zidane then left last summer, saying that the squad needed a shake-up. Madrid’s record all-time goalscorer Cristiano Ronaldo soon followed. The 2018/19 season has since highlighted major problems throughout the team – which has already lost six home games for the first time this century.
Last week’s back-to-back Clásico defeats were blamed by Solari and the team’s biggest dressingroom figures on missed chances – comments taken widely as indirect fingers pointed at Bale for not stepping up to fill Ronaldo’s boots.
Few Madrid fans or pundits seemed to admit that Blancos captain Sergio Ramos was at fault for Barca midfielder Ivan Rakitic’s winner on Saturday evening, and has been generally wayward all season. Other previous key players in the team including Marcelo, Toni Kroos, Casemiro, Dani Carvajal and Isco are also seriously out of form.
Bale has not been consistently good either, but it has not been all his fault. Injuries have again hampered his contribution, with 33 games this season bringing 13 goals. And often Solari has preferred teenager Vinicius Junior and hard-working Lucas Vazquez as his starting wingers. It is not that difficult to see why last season’s Champions League final match-winner - and his agent - are not happy with the situation.
Barnett also told ESPN Bale had no problems with either coach Solari or Real president Florentino Perez, but political positioning has already begun ahead of a summer shake-up. Recent days have also seen former Blancos manager Jose Mourinho offering himself publicly to return. Mourinho is a clear admirer of Bale having tried more than once to bring him to Manchester United in recent years. Should Madrid exit the Champions League tonight to Ajax, their season will be already over and the recriminations loud and brutal. Bale will no doubt be back in the firing line from local fans and pundits, whether he deserves it or not.