El Clasico: Under-fire Bale nears first Real acid test
Gareth Bale has endured arguably the toughest spell of his career in recent weeks but has the perfect opportunity to silence his critics when Real Madrid face Barcelona in Sunday's Clasico at Camp Nou.
Having adapted well since his mega-money move from Tottenham - winning the Copa del Rey and the UEFA Champions League in his debut season - a recent lean spell has attracted fierce criticism.
Spanish media have questioned his commitment to the side both on and off the field, while Real fans have made their feelings clear inside the Bernabeu.
So strong has the criticism been that club president Florentino Perez, coach Carlo Ancelotti and Ballon d'Or holder Cristiano Ronaldo have all been moved to back the winger of late.
Bale's form - despite having been part of a wider Real slump - has even dragged sections of the British and Spanish press into disagreement.
It all represents something of a new experience for the 25-year-old, who enjoyed a relatively low-profile in the media prior to the stunning 2012-13 season at Tottenham that earned him his dream Real move.
Said to be shy and retiring away from the pitch, it is perhaps apt that Bale has the ideal opportunity to let his football do the talking and brush off criticism in the season's second Clasico.
Bale's brace against Levante last week did little to stop the criticisms as the Wales star celebrated his first by covering his ears in blatant response to the fans, before deflecting a Ronaldo shot in for his second.
A similar showing against fierce rivals Barca would surely put a more definitive stop to the unwanted discussion around his form.
|Bale's nine-game lean spell:||Previous form in 2014-15:|
|Starts: 9||Starts: 27|
|Goals: 0||Goals: 14|
|Assists: 1||Assists: 7|
Bale produced the finest moment of his Real career to date against Barca last season in the Copa del Rey final, as he memorably sped past Marc Bartra –via a detour off the pitch - to hit the winner, and similar heroics would put Carlo Ancelotti's side on course for their first league title since 2012.
As well as Bale's individual performances, Sunday's 170th La Liga Clasico is also likely to throw further spotlight on his playing relationship with Ronaldo.
Ronaldo appeared visibly frustrated during the win over Levante as Bale tucked in a rebound following the Portugal star's overhead kick before his fortunate second.
The reaction of the world's best player after the goals sparked plenty of debate over the relationship between the two most high-profile members of Carlo Ancelotti's 'BBC' frontline, although continued victories will help turn discussion back towards the title run-in.
Victory for Real on Sunday would put Ancelotti's side in the driving seat for the title, with Bale then able to look back at what would merely prove a low point in an otherwise positive start at the Bernabeu.
However, defeat, coupled with a poor performance, would heap pressure on Ancelotti, Bale and even Perez - the man behind Bale's big-money arrival.