Pressure, expectation on Gareth Bale par for the course at Real Madrid
The conclusions were clear for friend and foe alike: Gareth Bale's celebration after Sunday night's opening goal for Real Madrid against Levante was far past joy, or even relief, after putting an end to a run of nine games without a goal. As the Welshman covered his ears and then booted a corner flag, it was clear that the mood was more than pleasure -- a bit closer to what the French call revanchard, or the feeling of getting even.
It's not been an easy trot for Bale, with the treatment he's received during his fallow spell making headlines back in the UK. This exploded into a minor international incident on Monday, when Marca responded furiously to a BBC Sport column that had accused the Madrid sports daily of "savage" criticism of the winger. Headlined "The BBC's reprehensiBale smear campaign" on Marca's online English version (the original Spanish version had been even more provocatively titled "Hooligans en la BBC"), the newspaper's extraordinary attack on the Beeb suggested the corporation is "all about drama" and even evoked an alleged cover-up over the Jimmy Savile scandal.
This may have momentarily drawn some of the glare from Bale himself, but it also provided a window into exactly what the former Tottenham man has to deal with. Marca wrote elsewhere in the riposte that it "does not engage in campaigns" -- though former Bernabeu coach Manuel Pellegrini might be among those who beg to differ -- but the extent of its doggedness was shot all the way through it.
Whether or not you believe that Bale is on the periphery of the dressing room (as Marca has suggested) or being set up as a "victim" (as per the BBC), his position has been a tricky one in recent weeks. Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema have also been below their sharpest over the same period, with the former netting a comparatively modest two in six Liga games since returning from a ban and the latter putting away two in the last seven La Liga meetings.
Whereas Los Blancos's mouthwatering attacking trio is celebrated with its own acronym when things are going well -- "El BBC," rather ironically in the present climate, in reference to Bale, Benzema and Cristiano -- any negative result brings to the surface the old fears that two's company, but three's a crowd. It looks like outrageous dashing when it works, and hubristic imbalance when it doesn't.
In this scenario, poor Bale will always be the odd one out. Ronaldo is what he is, an indispensable. Benzema is not far off a similar status, having largely overcome criticism of his attitude and even his talent, largely on the back of his highly intuitive relationship with the Portugal captain. Ronaldo remains Madrid's best player, and Benzema helps to get the best out of him. There will always be greater scrutiny of Bale's relationship with Ronaldo given their similarities, in terms of playing style and price tag, along with the younger man's clear admiration of his senior colleague.
That is something that may never change. We've been here before, of course, with some consternation over Bale taking a direct free kick that Ronaldo had designs on as Madrid chased (in vain) an equaliser at Sevilla in La Liga last March, much to the Portuguese's displeasure. In January this year, Bale electing to go alone instead of serving up a simple chance for Benzema in an eventual defeat at Valencia on the return from the winter break -- again, much to the annoyance of his two fellow front-runners -- laid the foundations for the recent murmurs of discontent. A repeat performance the following week, this time in victory over Espanyol, drew the ire of a significant section the Bernabeu crowd.
Bale might well ask himself what he's supposed to do. Is a forward purchased for a reported €100 million not supposed to back himself to score in big moments? It's not as if he was shooting from the halfway line instead of passing, but trying to score from a goalscoring opportunity. The suspicion was always that the reactions from colleagues and supporters were general frustration as Madrid's pre-Christmas winning streak came to an end, rather than necessarily anything more personal.
He's certainly new to this level of opprobrium, having had an improbably good first season in Madrid. Improbably because he overcame arriving without a proper preseason under his belt -- a significant handicap for a player who relies so strongly on his athletic gifts -- to score 22 times in all competitions, incorporating the winning goal in the Copa del Rey final against Barcelona and the pivotal strike in the Champions League final against Atletico Madrid.
If Bale thinks the Bernabeu's reaction is one of ingratitude and shockingly short memories, he should have a look around the changing room. Ronaldo -- a man who, only in his sixth season at the club, has scored 293 goals in all competitions at the rate of more than one per game -- is hardly universally loved by the fans. Back in January 2012, he declined to celebrate a goal in the 5-1 home win over Granada in protest at dissent from the stands.
Benzema has been through it too, though his perpetually inscrutable exterior -- in contrast to Ronaldo's weekly pantomime -- leaves the extent to which the Frenchman has been affected by it strictly to the imagination.
The bottom line is that it is all part of the deal when you join Real Madrid. No player is too big to be torn out by fans and press. Fairness doesn't really come into it. Bale knew, or should have known, when he signed that with extraordinary prestige comes mind-bending levels of expectation. That will not change, and it is simply something that he must accept, as Ronaldo and Benzema have done before him.
Andy Brassell is a writer/broadcaster/producer for BBC, Guardian, Mirror, Talksport, BT Sport, WhoScored. Follow him on Twitter @andybrassell.