Injury-ravaged season clouds Bale’s homecoming
Playing in a Champions League final in his home city was beyond Gareth Bale’s dreams as a youngster, but Saturday’s Cardiff showpiece catches the Welshman at a career crossroads.
Real Madrid can make history by becoming the first team to retain the Champions League and complete a first La Liga and Champions League double in 59 years in the process.
Yet, the fact most of the road to Cardiff has been travelled without an injured Bale this season and that there is little desire in Madrid for him to be rushed back to face Juventus shows how his fortunes have changed over the past year.
“It is massively special for me personally, as it is where I was born, where I grew up,” said Bale on his impending return to Wales.
“Any Champions League final is special, but obviously this is a little bit extra special.
“I always dreamed I’d play a Champions League final, but never in my home town.
“At the time there was not a stadium big enough I don’t think.”
Nearly 75,000 will cram into the Millenium Stadium on Saturday, but those coming for a closer look at the hometown hero may be disappointed.
Bale hasn’t played since April 23 when he suffered the latest of a series of calf injuries that have blighted his four years in Madrid.
However, it is ankle ligament damage followed by an operation in November that has been the root cause of an injury-ravaged campaign just when Bale looked set to fully stamp his authority on this Madrid side.
“He was one of the best players at the start of the season,” said Madrid midfielder Luka Modric.
– Contract renewal –
Bale led Madrid to the Champions League last year by ending the season in the form of his life.
He then carried Wales to the Euro 2016 semi-finals and his burgeoning status within the Real squad was rewarded with a huge contract renewal to 2022 in October.
However, since then he has had to endure long days in the gym and on the treatment table, even admitting to taking pain killers to get through matches after initially making his return from surgery in February.
“There have been moments when I have had to consider other things with my ankle,” he added
“I have had to work tirelessly hard, double (training) sessions, being away from my family a lot working hard on it.
“It has been difficult, physically and mentally.
“Obviously any surgery is difficult, but in the middle of a season is always that bit more difficult. You want to come back as soon as possible.
“In hindsight I should have stayed out a bit longer and let it heal and strengthen.”
Rather than falter in his absence, Madrid have flourished.
Zinedine Zidane’s men claimed a first La Liga title for five years with Bale’s understudy Isco’s stunning form playing a huge role in the final stages of the season.
Even Bale admitted it would be harsh in the extreme on the Spanish international for his return to cost Isco a starting role in the final.
“I think Isco has been fantastic,” continued Bale.
“The most important thing is to try and get myself to be ready at some point for the game, whether that is starting or coming off the bench.”
However, Bale distanced himself from suggestions that not starting could plant a seed of doubt over his future at the Bernabeu.
Manchester United lead the queue of English clubs that would be desperate to bring him back to the Premier League, but Bale insists it is for occasions like Saturday that he moved to the Spanish capital.
“You never expect to win two (Champions League) finals, never mind three.
“It is the reason I came to this club, to play in finals, to win trophies, and that is what we are doing at the moment.
“Hopefully we can add another one now on Saturday.”