There was a point in Gareth Bale’s career when it looked like his Real Madrid dream was coming to an end. Rumours of discontent among his own team-mates, an inability to integrate into Spanish culture and some generally underwhelming performances on the field were all prevalent features. That's a distant memory now, though, with Bale closing in on doing the unthinkable and becoming the heir to Cristiano Ronaldo’s throne.
The Portuguese still rattles the goals in, but the mesmerising performances of old - littered with mazy runs down the wing - are consigned to video compilations. It’s a good job, then, that Madrid have Bale.
The Welshman has grown in stature over the last year, and it all started with Rafa Benitez's ill-fated reign. Under Carlo Ancelotti, Bale looked to be heading for the exit door - before the Italian was shown it himself. Bale was then taken under the wing of Benitez, who put him on the right path to becoming the golden boy at the club. It was under the Spanish coach that Bale began to fly just like he had in north London, rampaging down the flank and also proving a dynamic force through the middle.
The Welshman has begun to take up more important positions on the field, understanding where he needs to be to cause maximum destruction. Despite the departure of Benitez, there's been no relenting in Bale’s form: under Zinedine Zidane and with Ronaldo in decline, the 26-year-old has come to the fore as a leader. This culminated in his strong Champions League final display, in which he assisted a goal and scored in the penalty shoot-out.
The former Southampton full-back has become a clinical performer, creating chances and also taking them himself. His physical attributes are phenomenal: he provides speed and strength in a league which has seldom seen such a devastating combination of the two.
When Bale wants to control a game, or decide one, then he will. He did it for his country in the summer, too, as Wales produced one of the most memorable performances of any team at Euro 2016.
Bale led Chris Coleman's side, becoming one of the few superstars who actually delivered in France. In turn Wales grew in strength as the competition went on, fuelled by their star man's heroics; Bale was unselfish and showed character, as well as providing a number of crucial goals that made him the competition's joint-second top scorer.
The rewards haven’t stopped coming for Bale, who recently signed a bumper new deal to cement his status as a key player at Madrid. It’s a world away from the stories of a shy young man failing to adapt to Spanish life. The club is now very much in the palm of Bale's hand and it's only a matter of time before Ronaldo relinquishes his place on the Bernabeu throne.
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FourFourTwo’s Best 100 Football Players in the World 2016
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