Real Madrid’s past, present, and future could all come together in tonight’s Champions League Group A game against Paris Saint Germain at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu.
With PSG almost certain to win the group, and Madrid all but sure to qualify in second place, there will be a big focus on Gareth Bale and Kylian Mbappe — as one is pushed out the Bernabeu door, while the welcome mat is laid out for the other.
Bale’s relationship with many Blancos pundits and fans was made even worse last week by the photo of him grinning behind a flag saying: ‘Wales, Golf, Madrid, in that order’ as he celebrated his country making Euro 2020. There was a loud outcry from those angered (or claiming to be angered) by a lack of respect for the club which pays his €15m-a-year wages.
Especially as Bale had not featured at all for Madrid between the last two international breaks — but he was fit enough each time to help Wales to qualify.
Bale continues to claim he does not care what is written or said about him in the Spanish media, but he seemed to enjoy getting one back at his critics.
The ‘Wales, Golf, Madrid’ ranking of his priorities first came from ex-Madrid player and sporting director Predrag Mijatovic on Spanish radio. This came amid a general piling on top of the 30-year-old for not being committed enough to Madrid, not speaking Spanish in public, caring too much about golf, and even not knowing enough about Brexit.
While with Wales, Bale said that playing for his country but not his club during the last six weeks had been just “kind of a coincidence”, admitting he “felt more comfortable” alongside long-term friends with his national team, but still “gave 100%” for Madrid.
That cut no ice with disgruntled supporters at the Bernabeu, who furiously whistled his every touch when introduced from the bench in Saturday evening’s 3-1 win over Real Sociedad. He did not seem affected by the clamour, and actually played very well, including a run and cross leading to the goal that clinched victory — scored by one of his few friends at the club, Luka Modric.
The whole hullabaloo has put Blancos coach Zinedine Zidane into the awkward position of defending of a player he publicly tried to force out just a few months ago.
“It is important for all our players to feel the fans are with them,” Zidane said yesterday.
“Tomorrow is important for all of us, not just Gareth. PSG are having a great season. It’s a challenge for us, but we like that.”
The former galactico declined to say whether Bale would start, but knows that the former Tottenham player often delivers on these big Champions League occasions. So he could get the nod over talented but inexperienced Brazilian teenager Rodrygo Goes.
The PSG XI will also be much-anticipated at the Bernabeu, specifically whether Mbappe starts following a recent adductor muscle problem.
The 20-year-old has long been a target for Blancos president Florentino Perez, who would have paid €180m to Monaco for him in 2016. The player chose PSG that summer after realising that neither Bale nor Cristiano Ronaldo would leave Madrid.
Zidane also identified Mbappe’s talents early, and as far back as 2014, and facilitated the kid visiting Madrid’s training ground for a trial game. The Madrid boss has also regularly publicly named his fellow countryman, along with Paul Pogba, among the signings who would fit with his ‘second project’ at the famed club.
“I’ve known him for a long time,” Zidane said yesterday when asked about Mbappe.
“I’ve been in love with him for a long time, but as a person first. He came here for a trial a long time ago. Tomorrow, he comes as an opponent.”
After Mbappe committed to PSG for another year at least last summer, Perez made what was an ultimately half-hearted attempt to sign his unsettled Brazilian clubmate Neymar.
But recent days have seen more Blancos sources talking about a world-record bid being made next year for the younger, more focused star.
New galactico Eden Hazard was blunt in an interview with Le Parisien last weekend.
“In a few years, Kylian will be the best player in the world,” Hazard said.
“If I could, I’d take him to Madrid tomorrow.”
All of which means there’s a good chance that some Bernabeu fans will cheer an opposition striker’s name tonight while jeering one of their own stars. It’s a strange state of affairs at most clubs, but a clear indication of where Zidane, Perez, Florentino and many at Real Madrid want to go.