Gareth Bale is back but returns not so much to a hero’s welcome but a Real Madrid team doing rather well without him.
When Cristiano Ronaldo left last summer, 45 days after Bale’s brilliant double in the Champions League final, the belief was they had their ready-made successor. The club’s president Florentino Perez was convinced.
It started well, with three goals in as many games, but the team shrivelled under Julen Lopetegui and Bale, like the rest of the squad, faded. Then his fitness broke down too.
There was a groin strain in October and an ankle problem in December. Both were minor but a calf injury at the start of January proved more serious and Bale was out for three weeks.
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In that time, Madrid rebounded off a defeat by Real Sociedad to beat Leganes, Real Betis, Sevilla and Girona. They lost a second leg to Leganes in the Copa del Rey, but the tie was all but won.
Results were good but performances even better. Their 2-0 victory over Sevilla was probably their most complete display of the season while in last weekend’s 4-2 win against Espanyol, when Bale came on and scored, Madrid seemed to have their swagger back.
“We are showing we haven’t forgotten how to play,” said Luka Modric. “This is the Madrid we want to see.”
Chasing down Barcelona and a 10-point gap in La Liga will likely prove impossible but with the Champions League knock-out stages just around the corner, this gathering of momentum is timely.