CARDIFF – A powerless spectator as Wales’ World Cup dreams were crushed by the Republic of Ireland, Real Madrid star Gareth Bale has arrived at a crucial tipping point in his career.
Sidelined by the latest in a succession of calf injuries, Bale could only watch forlornly from the stands at Cardiff City Stadium on Monday as Ireland’s 1-0 win gave them a World Cup playoff berth at Wales’ expense.
Having turned 28 in July, and with his fortunes tied to a country that last qualified for the World Cup in 1958, Bale has missed out on his best chance of playing at football’s biggest event.
He was the undisputed figurehead of Wales’ successful qualifying campaign for Euro 2016, and then starred with three goals as Chris Coleman’s side confounded every expectation by reaching the semi-finals in France.
But his injury woes have obliged other players to step up in recent months, with 17-year-old Liverpool forward Ben Woodburn and Derby County’s Tom Lawrence among the unlikely players to have answered the Welsh call.
The loss to Ireland leaves Bale and the other members of Wales’ “Golden Generation” contemplating the demotivating thought that Euro 2016 may have been as good as it will ever get for them.
Bale can at least console himself that once he has recovered from his latest injury, his place in Coleman’s starting XI will be waiting for him, but the same cannot be said at Madrid.
With three Champions League triumphs in the past four seasons, Bale is already arguably Britain’s most successful footballing export, and yet he is under greater pressure at the Bernabeu than ever before.
Isco exploited an ankle injury sustained by Bale to move ahead of the Welshman in the pecking order last season, and 21-year-old Marco Asensio’s emergence as the new darling of Spanish football has further complicated matters.
Bale managed just 19 league appearances last season as Zinedine Zidane’s men streaked to the Spanish league title and has started only four times in the league in the current campaign.