West Bromwich Albion, Stoke City, Wycombe Wanderers, Brighton & Hove Albion. What comes next? Probably not Everton or Manchester City. The common denominator between those four clubs, split equally between the Championship and the lower half of the Premier League, is that they are the only four English sides to face a Tottenham team with Gareth Bale in the starting 11. Since 2013, anyway.
That list can be augmented with European opponents – LASK Linz, Royal Antwerp, Ludogorets and, perhaps, Wolfsberger soon – but it is scarcely a collection of the game’s luminaries. Bale, the quadruple Champions League winner, the man who scored three goals in club football’s most glamourous game, now feels the man for the small occasion; at least in Jose Mourinho’s eyes.
Wednesday’s FA Cup tie at Everton is a reunion with Carlo Ancelotti, Mourinho’s successor at the Bernabeu, the manager when Bale headed the crucial second goal in the 2014 Champions League final against Atletico Madrid. Old allies are likely to be both found up wrapped up against the Merseyside cold, watching on.
If the initial assumption when Tottenham borrowed Bale was that he would form a holy trinity in attack with Harry Kane and Son Heung-min, the others have instead proved the deadliest double act in Premier League history. At times, they have been so potent that Spurs have not needed a third scorer, though their stumbles in the last couple of months have shown even they require assistance.
But Mourinho has rarely trusted Bale to provide it. Steven Bergwijn has become a firm favourite of the Portuguese even as he has embarked on a 32-game goal drought, a symbol of Mourinho’s innate preference for industry over inspiration. The workhorse Moussa Sissoko has been granted outings on the right ahead of Bale. Erik Lamela has a tendency to be the first substitute summoned. Lucas Moura, another to find league goals in short supply under Mourinho, flourished against West Brom on Sunday. Bale, semi-fit when he joined, injured at times, not granted a run of games, has ranked ahead of Dele Alli in the pecking order, but that is about as much as can be said in his favour. He has completed 90 minutes once against domestic opponents; he was hauled off first in the dismal defeat at Brighton. He has only been given 72 minutes’ football against current top-10 Premier League teams, in which time Spurs scored one goal and conceded six.
A week of two defining games – and Spurs’ problems in the Premier League make an FA Cup tie bigger for a manager who has marketed himself as a serial winner – suggest a further stint on the bench. Even beyond that, Mourinho’s risk-averse nature, his habit of fielding what can seem needlessly strong teams and his propensity to revert to Kane and Son mean it is far from a guarantee Bale will start against Austrian underdogs in the Europa League; maybe only in the second leg if the first is won by a suitable margin. With every slight, every setback, every stint as an unused substitute or every inconclusive cameo – and it did not escape notice that Mourinho did not turn to Bale in the dreadful, Kane-less defeat to Chelsea, when he only made two changes – it feels less likely he will acquire form, momentum and his manager’s confidence. His season is drifting away.
Daniel Levy’s supposed coup of bringing him back to his old home now looks like an expensive mistake. Mourinho’s time alongside Ed Woodward equipped him with a knowledge of an executive with a Bale obsession. His return was a feelgood story, a happy homecoming for footballer and fanbase alike. But now it just feels a costly anti-climax, a largely forgettable, wholly unsatisfactory sequel.
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