Five years on from his Copa del Rey final heroics and things could hardly be more contrasting for Gareth Bale.
The Welshman, then the most expensive player in the world, could do little wrong in his first season with Real Madrid, popping up with the winning goal in both the Champions League and Copa del Rey finals.
The goal against Barcelona that clinched Real Madrid’s 19th and most recent Copa del Rey in 2014 is particularly noteworthy for its sheer brilliance. Starting inside his own half and avoiding the attempt of Marc Bartra to shove him off the pitch, Bale made up over 50 yards and finished past Jose Pinto.
That goal should have been the springboard for Bale to achieve cult hero status in the Spanish capital, and his headed goal that clinched the elusive ‘La Decima’ could have sealed his legendary reputation for Madridistas, but Bale has never really kicked on.
Despite also providing a miraculous winner in last season’s Champions League final, Bale increasingly finds himself out of favour with the Real Madrid faithful. It is a mark of the disloyalty and disrespect of the Spanish club that someone who has played such a big role in their recent success isn’t revered by everyone, but rather is seen as an outcast who has never really been part of the fabric of the club; always a pretender and a competitor to Cristiano Ronaldo’s throne.
However, these are the same fans who reduced club legend Iker Casillas to tears before his departure from Madrid.
Bale shouldn’t look for any sympathy off Real Madrid fans. He won’t get any.
The former Spurs man has hardly been blameless and his non-celebration against Levante has done little to appease both the Real Madrid hierarchy and the Real Madrid supporters, and his imminent departure from the club feels somewhat inevitable. But if he can come up with a vital moment on Wednesday night against Barcelona, his Real Madrid career will at least have come full circle.
This year’s semi-final is the first time Barcelona and Real Madrid have played each other in the domestic cup since that 2014 final, and Barcelona have enjoyed a love affair with the competition ever since. The Catalan giants have won each of the last four Copas, forming the unusual trend whereby they dominate domestically, while Real dominate on the European front.
It seems as though Real Madrid need this victory a lot more than Barcelona. Seven points clear at the top of the league, Barca are well placed to win their fourth La Liga crown in five years, and their eighth since 2009. In that time, they have also won six cups and their recent domestic dominance puts pressure on Real Madrid to take home the cup.
Already out of the running in the league, which they have only won twice since 2009, Real need a cup victory to stem the tide of endless Barcelona triumphs in Spain. They do not look remotely like the team that has just won three European cups on the bounce, and it is difficult to see them retaining the trophy for a fourth year running.
The cup, therefore, represents their most realistic hope for silverware in a season marred by the managerial tenure of Julien Lopetegui and the loss of Cristiano Ronaldo.
Barcelona are also not the team they once were. There is now such an over-reliance on Lionel Messi that when he doesn’t play, they don’t look like beating anybody. Saturday’s game against Sevilla was indicative of that.
The losses of Andres Iniesta and Neymar in recent years left voids that haven’t yet been filled by the likes of Arthur and Ousmane Dembele. Luis Suarez also does not look half the player who nearly singlehandedly dragged Liverpool to the Premier League title in 2014 or who won Europe’s golden boot in 2016.
The Catalonians have looked vulnerable all season and Real hold the advantage after a 1-1 draw in the Nou Camp. They need to press that home if they are to save their domestic season. It might be one of Bale’s last great acts in Spain if he can help them secure one more trophy, and it will be just one more great act for Real Madrid fans to ignore.