It had been a while. Some 721 days, to be precise. Or, to be even more precise, 721 days and eight minutes of action, between Gareth Bale’s 80th league goal for Real Madrid and his 81st. In between, there have been many ups and downs and attempts at an exit.
But in some ways, Bale would be forgiven for thinking very little has changed in the period through his dispiriting fall in the hierarchy at Madrid through the 2019-20 season, then his patchy loan year at Tottenham Hotspur, and the sweet moment on Sunday where he received a pass from Karim Benzema and calmly put Madrid ahead at Levante.
His previous La Liga goal for Madrid had been scored just up the Mediterranean coast, at Villarreal, on a see-saw night when Bale scored twice, his second goal in the 86th minute, and contrived to collect two yellow cards and be sent off in injury time.
That match, on the first day of September 2019, finished 2-2, and having served his suspension, Bale then spent most of the rest of that season estranged from the starting XI, his relationship with the then Madrid coach, Zinedine Zidane becoming ever more glacial, Bale’s enthusiasm for the club waning.
Fast forward to the City of Valencia stadium at the weekend, and he has a happier outlook. It was Bale’s second successive start, in the second Liga match of Carlo Ancelotti’s second spell as Madrid manager.
Bale gave Madrid the lead after four minutes. He soon gathered he was still part of a Madrid as unpredictable as they were two years earlier, part of a league where hierarchy counts for only so much.
A goal ahead at half-time, Madrid were trailing Levante by the 57th minute. Only after Bale, 32, Eden Hazard, 30, and Isco, 29, had been substituted, in favour of Marco Asensio, Vinicius and Rodrygo — all of them under 25 — did Madrid remount the rollercoaster. Vinicius scored two excellent equalisers on the way to a 3-3 draw, reminding Bale and Hazard that competition for places in the wide areas of Madrid’s attack is strong.
An hour or so earlier, in north-east Italy, Bale’s former accomplice Cristiano Ronaldo was aboard a rollercoaster of his own. And for a brief minute or so, Ronaldo believed he had, once again, steered the ride better than anybody.
Ronaldo’s Juventus drew their opening fixture of the Serie A season 2-2 at Udinese. They had led 2-0 after 23 minutes. Ronaldo started on the bench, a choice bound to sustain the summer-long speculation over whether or not he will be fulfilling the last year of his current Juventus contract or moving elsewhere. “It was a mutual decision,” said the club’s senior director, Pavel Nedved, of Ronaldo being left out of manager Max Allegri’s starting XI, “based on fitness.”
Nedved knew that would not smother the speculation. Ronaldo’s restlessness, his curiosity about whether there may be one more big move available to him in club football as he approaches the age of 37, has been barely disguised over the last 12 months. When Juventus, who signed him from Madrid in 2018, failed to win the Serie A title last May his frustration was plain.
But for Ronaldo to move, vast hurdles would need to be overcome. He, like Bale, has a year left on his contract. Like Bale, he earns a salary very few other clubs have the resources to match. Juventus have as yet received no viable offers for CR7 with a week left of the transfer window.
He is also their most reliable match-winner. Ronaldo scored more Serie A goals than anybody last season.
In injury time against Udinese, he and Juve believed that the Portuguese’s knack of stealing a show had been demonstrated once again.
Allegri summoned Ronaldo on the hour, in between the pair of goalkeeping errors from Wojciech Szczesny that invited Udinese back into the game. Like Ancelotti at Levante, Allegri also added a dash of youth to a late salvage operation, bringing Dejan Kulusevski, 21, and Federico Chiesa, 23, off the bench.
In injury time, Chiesa crossed, Ronaldo headed home in and in between his believing he had won the game for Juve and the ‘goal’ being ruled out for offside by VAR, CR7 picked up a booking for stripping off his shirt in celebration.
Hopes raised and dashed, Juventus jersey prematurely discarded: That might have been a symbol of Ronaldo’s summer, a tale of a player hinting he’d like to try on another club’s colours, but finding no prestigious new shirt quite fits.
Like Bale, Ronaldo may not be exactly where he wants to be. But neither are ready to fade into the background as they prepare their farewells to Spain and Italy.