The sadly familiar sight of a forlorn Gareth Bale dominated Spain’s sports pages on Saturday after the Real Madrid star suffered the latest in a series on injury setbacks.
Since signing a lucrative new six-year contract with Madrid over a year ago, Bale, 28, has featured in just 24 matches as an ankle operation last November was followed by calf strains and now a thigh problem, which is expected to keep him out for another month.
“Bale breaks down again,” splashed the front page of Madrid sports daily AS.
Both AS and rival publication Marca calculated that Bale has until now missed 73 Madrid games through injury since joining the Spanish giants for a then world record 100.7 million euros ($117 million) from Tottenham Hotspur in 2013.
Indeed, including Bale’s bumper salary, AS believe his 159 games for the club have cost Madrid 1.06 million euros a match.
Bale’s time in Madrid has not been short of success. In four full seasons, he has lifted the Champions League three times and scored 70 goals.
His highs include Real’s crucial second goal to see off Atletico Madrid in the 2014 Champions League final, netting from the spot in a nervous penalty shootout against the same opponents in the final two years later, and a memorable solo run and finish to beat Barcelona in the 2014 Copa del Rey final.
However, for many in Madrid those moments have been far too fleeting for the club’s record purchase.
Bale admitted to “taking tablets to get through games and training” last season, but, even then, his lack of fitness meant he only made a cameo appearance of the bench for the final 13 minutes as Real romped to a 12th European Cup win in his home city of Cardiff in June.
No longer untouchable
In his absence over the past year, home favourites Isco and Marco Asensio have starred and it would cause serious disquiet in the stands and the dressing room at the Bernabeu if they were to be squeezed out to make room for Bale when fit.
For a long time untouchable, the ‘BBC’ front three of Bale, Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo haven’t played a single minute together so far this season.
“Protected by the hierarchy since he arrived as part of the non-negotiable BBC, he hasn’t made himself important,” AS added in their analysis.
“In fact, players like Isco or Asensio with their performances continually put his place in the team in doubt.”
Just 15 months on from carrying his country to the semi-finals of Euro 2016, Bale also had to watch on in agony from the stands as Wales’ attempts to qualify for a first World Cup since 1958 fell short last month.
As patience wears thin in Madrid, the potential for a return to England’s Premier League, where Bale was twice Players’ Player of the Year with Spurs, remains a strong possibility.
Manchester United boss Jose Mourinho conceded before the start of the season the Red Devils would “wait for him” should Bale ever be discarded by Real.
However, as the Spanish media counted the cost of not cashing in on the 28-year-old, there is a question mark over whether even the cash rich United would part with up to the 100 million euros Madrid spent on Bale for a player who has struggled just to get on the pitch for the past year.