At the end of last season, Gareth Bale was on top of the world.
After a season in Spain as the world’s most expensive football player, the Wales international had overcome initial doubts over his transfer fee to play an important role in a memorable season for Real Madrid.
Not only had the former Tottenham winger scored a spectacular winner in the Copa del Rey final against Barcelona, but he headed home Los Blancos’ second goal in the Champions League finale that secured the club the fabled La Décima.
Viewed as a key member of the Spanish capital city team, Bale seemed to be one of a group of players able to aspire to be seen in the same light as the game’s top two performers; Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.
The first half of this season initially was a continuation of where Madrid and their prize asset left off, with Bale part of the hailed ‘BBC’ attacking triumvirate alongside stars Ronaldo and Karim Benzema.
However, since the turn of the year, things have taken a big step sideways.
Madrid’s run of unrelenting victories in all competitions has been put to an end, with the European champions no longer looking like the unstoppable juggernaut of 2014 and dropping points in La Liga.
As Madrid faltered, Barcelona have risen from the ashes to take top spot in the league thanks to Messi’s unparalleled and unrelenting heroics.
For Bale personally, a decline in performances began at the Estadio Mestalla, where Carlo Ancelotti’s men were beaten 2-1 by a rejuvenated Valencia side in the first game after the mid-season break.
The Spanish media and Madrid’s own fans are an unforgiving mob; when Los Blancos are beaten, scapegoats are regularly sought out.
In this instance it was Bale that faced the brunt of accusation after spurned a glorious opportunity to score or create Madrid’s second goal, which would probably have seen the fixture end in the visitors’ favour.
Released down the left by Benzema, the Wales international sped towards the Valencia goal but overran the ball and coughed up a glorious opportunity to score.
More importantly, Bale opted to try and score himself rather than square the ball to the unmarked Frenchman standing six yards from an open goal.
Marca chastised the former Spurs star in the aftermath of the game, labelling him selfish – the tag has stuck ever since.
In February, in a 4-1 victory over Real Sociedad at the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu, Bale spurned another great chance to score in the early stages of the fixture.
As time has gone on and Madrid have continued to underwhelm, Marca’s relentless campaign against Bale has continued, with their pièce de résistance an article written by Enrique Ortego last week.
The Spanish journalist asked and answered 11 questions about Bale’s contributions on the pitch, with each retort a scathing criticism of the Wales international.
A poll of the newspaper’s readers found that 46.1 per cent of them urged Ancelotti to drop the world’s most expensive player, while the boos at the Bernabéu have now become more commonplace – admittedly by a section of the fans rather than the collective.
Although Florentino Pérez and Ancelotti have both come to the defence of the misfiring star, arguably the most worrying sign has been the animated reactions of Ronaldo on the pitch at times.
The back-to-back Ballon d’Or winner has been photographed wincing in frustration on occasions that Bale does not pass him the ball, while it appears from the outside that the star duo’s relationship is fractured.
The former Manchester United attacker, despite being a glorious footballer, possesses a sizeable ego and the presence of the world’s most expensive player could well be a threat to the king’s crown.
Bale managed to end a nine-game goal drought on Sunday with a defining brace in the 2-0 win over Levante, which will come as real relief to the player.
Despite being an ultimate professional, the Welshman will be aware of the ongoing media scepticism and the crowd baying for blood, which in turn can only impact on the player negatively.
Bale has changed his game somewhat since the whole fracas at the Mestalla started, with statistics showing that he has had considerably less shots on goal – presumably to avoid the selfish tag.
However, with a Clásico fixture this weekend that could well salvage Madrid’s season, the fickle nature of the game means that Bale would be the Bernabéu club’s darling once more if he scores the winner at Camp Nou.
Playing for arguably the biggest club in the world has substantial demands; wearing the white of Madrid whilst possessing the mantle of the most expensive player in the world seems at times to be an insurmountable challenge.