For many, the obvious choice was Angel Di Maria.
The Argentine had spent the lion’s share of his four years at the Bernabeu operating on the right of a front three or as part of the attacking trio in a 4-2-3-1 formation—the position Bale was tipped to land.
And, even before the arrival of Bale, Mesut Ozil had occasionally been the preferred option to fill that right-sided role under Jose Mourinho.
For those reasons, it was largely expected that when Bale got on, Di Maria would get off.
However, Carlo Ancelotti wasn’t in line with those thoughts and had other ideas for the attacking midfielder, who arrived in the Spanish capital from Benfica for €25 million in 2010, instead allowing Ozil to depart for Arsenal.
I decided the departure of Ozil. I prefer Di Maria for the balance of the team.
It is true, that maybe Di Maria has less quality than Ozil but on a profile of dynamism, character and help to the team I preferred Di Maria.
With the arrival of Bale, it was better to have Di Maria than Ozil.
And even before Angel Di Maria was awarded the Man of the Match award in the Champions League final by Sir Alex Ferguson on Saturday night, it already looked like one of the best decisions the Italian has made during his brief spell as manager of Los Blancos.
Fergie giving Di Maria his man of the match award pic.twitter.com/N2OaQBcJxQ— Rik Sharma (@riksharma_) May 24, 2014
The Italian’s vision for the 26-year-old—admittedly aided by injury to Sami Khedira—was as a central midfielder in a midfield three.
It wasn’t necessarily a new role for Di Maria: He’s played there for his country in the past and occasionally in his club career too, but it wasn’t a role many saw him taking up on a regular basis at the Bernabeu.
He has been an absolute revelation in the middle of the park.
His pace and energy has complemented the different skill sets of Xabi Alonso and Luka Modric perfectly, and, more often than not, he has actually been the Real Madrid player to make things happen in the big games.
In the Copa del Rey semi-final first leg against Atletico Madrid, he scored one and created two in a 3-0 win. He was a nuisance against Barcelona in La Liga, even though Madrid eventually lost, assisting two goals, and he scored the opener against La Blaugrana in April’s domestic cup final.
Overall this season, according to data compiled by Transfermarkt, Di Maria has scored 11 goals and assisted 26 more—making this his best season in a Madrid shirt.
On Saturday night, in the Champions League final against city rivals Atletico, he once again proved to be the man for the big occasion.
While he might not have been on the scoresheet, it was his driving run and shot that forced Thibaut Courtois to parry the ball into Bale's path for the Welshman to head in what essentially proved to be the goal that won La Decima.
Throughout the 120 minutes he was tireless, and while Atleti were perhaps preoccupied with Cristiano Ronaldo and Bale, time and time again he appeared to be Madrid’s biggest threat.
A lot of players have played key roles in Real Madrid’s season—Sergio Ramos, Luka Modric, Cristiano Ronaldo—and the name of Angel Di Maria is certainly among that company.
Madrid’s fans must be thankful he was never forced off the bus.