"BALE-ISTIC MISSILES!" screamed the Daily Star, after Tottenham Hotspur's Europa League first-leg win over Lyon last week, which came courtesy of Gareth Bale's two superbly struck free kicks. "Bale is blast action hero," proclaimed the Daily Mirror, while the Daily Express opted for "Bale is the Lyon tamer." Cheesy, perhaps, but marginally more cerebral than the many headlines to play on the phrase "bailed out."
On Thursday, Tottenham scored another late goal to level the second leg and squeeze past Lyon into the last 16, where it will meet Inter Milan. This time it was Mousa Dembélé who sashayed toward the Lyon defense and rifled the ball past Rémy Vercoutre, but still the headlines went to Bale. "Remember THAT hat-trick!" the Daily Mail instructed its readers, referring to Spurs' Champions League run in 2010-11. "Bale and co. to return to San Siro." In the English press, Spurs have become Gareth Bale and 10 Not-Gareth-Bales.
Which is perhaps not surprising, given that Dembélé was the first Not-Gareth-Bale to score a goal for Tottenham since Clint Dempsey pulled one back against Leeds United in the FA Cup on Jan. 27. Against Norwich City, Bale galloped from inside his own half to score the equalizer; versus West Brom it was a straightforward belter, struck hard from the edge of the area and, as so often, carving away from the keeper all the time. Newcastle United arrived at White Hart Lane knowing where the danger was but little better prepared for it, succumbing to a late onslaught having already conceded one of those outrageously dipping free kicks.
The way that he takes free kicks -- he "stuns" the ball, as the Guardian's Rob Smyth put it in his live commentary -- and the manner in which he has at times seemed to drag Tottenham through a match, sweeping teammates along in his slipstream, have led to what feel like inevitable comparisons with Cristiano Ronaldo. Ronaldo is the player, after all, that Bale models his dead-ball delivery on when he stays behind to hone his technique, practicing after training each day.
A couple of years ago we were talking about whether Bale would make a name for himself at left back or left wing; his former manager, Harry Redknapp, was convinced it would be marauding from the fullback position. Now we wonder if it is the left wing or wherever the heck he likes. His current manager, Andre Villas-Boas, seems happy to permit the latter -- particularly when, as on Thursday, the opposition has 10 players behind the ball.
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"On the left wing it's more difficult to find space where you can get away from defenders," Bale said in a recent interview with Life's a Pitch. "There's a lot more space on the whole pitch than there is just on the left wing."
Sometimes it looks a strange compromise: Dempsey and, say, a tiring Lewis Holtby occupying wide areas so that Bale, whose pace and neatness enables him to work the touchline so well, can lurk just off the striker. Is it really such a waste of his talents to be "only" a brilliant winger? It certainly didn't hurt players like Garrincha, and Alex Ferguson paid little attention to David Beckham's desire to play more centrally because, well, why would you play such an effective winger elsewhere? There is undoubtedly something faintly ridiculous about watching Emmanuel Adebayor attempt to beat two defenders on the flank while Bale waits in the penalty area.
But the Welshman has shown how effective he can be through the middle, especially as games wear on and the mere mortals around him tire, and Adebayor's cross early in the second half on Thursday, which set up the side-footed volley that Bale put wide, actually was not half bad. Bale has coped well with the expectation and responsibility heaped on him this season by Spurs' unwillingness to invest properly and meaningfully in the front line. Given Tottenham's weakness up front with Jermain Defoe injured, Bale has had to be at times less Ronaldo-at-Manchester-United, more Ronaldo-for-Portugal.
For now the comparison flatters Bale (he himself puts Ronaldo and Lionel Messi "on another planet to everybody else"), but it is never too early for speculation to begin: between the first meeting with Lyon and Thursday's return, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich (reportedly readying a $152 million summer transfer kitty for incoming boss Pep Guardiola) and Paris Saint-Germain were the most credible clubs added to the list of potential new homes for Bale. He has 17 goals for Spurs this season, six of them in his last five appearances; pundits have done the math and found that this will surely be Bale's last season at Tottenham. It must be, the argument goes, if he wants to be considered alongside Messi and Ronaldo.
"A player of this refinement is accomplished enough to belong to a team with realistic aspirations of winning [the Champions League], rather than just the odd season here and there of sightseeing," wrote the Observer's Daniel Taylor. In the Sunday Times, Rod Liddle was resigned to Bale's departure from English soccer: "Better we just enjoy him for these last three or four months, while we still can."
All of this assumes that Tottenham, where Bale still has three years on his contract, will inevitably sell, because the money offered will be so ridiculously tempting -- Bale may never be more valuable to other teams than he will be this summer. It is a fair assumption, based on Tottenham's biggest departures in recent years. Yet Bale may never be so valued at another club as he is at Spurs; ironically, in the teams mentioned, he is far less likely to be given the kind of freedom from which he currently has them in thrall.
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