Ohmigod, does this guy know Cristiano Ronaldo still plays for Real Madrid?
That's the first thought some of you probably had when clicking on this article. I don't blame you—if I saw that headline I'd probably be thinking the same thing, too. So rather than directly address why I think Gareth Bale will be Los Blancos' most important player this season, let's first address why I think Ronaldo won't be.
For starters, I'm worried about his health. The Portuguese star sat out the second half of Real Madrid's Super Cup matchup against Atletico Madrid due to "some discomfort in his knee" according to Emilio Contreras of Marca, who stressed the decision was a precautionary measure.
It probably was, but Ronaldo's health has become an issue. It was obvious to everyone who watched him play at the World Cup that he was far less than 100 percent in Brazil. He missed last year's Copa Del Rey final against Barcelona after suffering an injury two weeks earlier in the Champions League quarterfinal against Borussia Dortmund and was an on-again, off-again injury concern for much of the season after that.
Oh, and he's 29 years old, meaning he's either just past his prime or about to wave it goodbye. Not everyone can be Andrea Pirlo, after all.
That might seem like a crazy thing to suggest about a player who just scored 51 goals and added 13 assists in 48 games—or about a player who takes his fitness and training as seriously as any other player in the world—but the wear and tear he's suffered by playing so many matches is going to catch up with him eventually.
Or perhaps already has.
In four of the past five seasons he's started at least 60 games for club and country, notching an insane total of 253 starts in the past four years (he's also come off the bench 12 times in that span, for those wondering).
Even insiders at Real Madrid have addressed the high usage of Ronaldo, as one source close to Real Madrid told Ben Hayward of Goal.com:
Cristiano always wants to play and it's that competitive streak that makes him the player he is, but he knows he will need to rest more to avoid a constant recurrence of this problem. The club are delighted to see him training at full pace as he has in previous years, but there is still some concern over how he will respond over the whole season.
[Manager Carlo Ancelotti] was a top player himself and he has told Ronaldo—as have the medical staff—that there will be times this season when he will need to rest. The club know there is no player in the world who takes care of himself like Cristiano does, so if he can add some much-needed rest to his superb diet and conditioning, Madrid believe he can be as influential as ever.
But there will be some anxious people at the club as he takes to the pitch on Tuesday.
Those people clearly had a right to be anxious, as Ronaldo lasted just a half and didn't look terribly influential during his 45 minutes on the pitch. The days of appearing in 60 or more matches per year for Ronaldo should probably be coming to a close.
Such is not the case for Bale, who is just 25 and has played over 50 games for club and country in a season just once (2012-13 for Tottenham and Wales). And hey, I'm not alone in thinking this will be the Year of Bale. Max Bretos of ESPN FC is with me:
Calling it... Make way Ronaldo, Gareth Bale is going to have a massive season.— Max Bretos (@mbretosESPN) August 19, 2014
Generally speaking, Real Madrid are equipped to begin weaning off their Ronaldo reliance. They added talented newcomers in James Rodriguez and Toni Kroos. Luka Modric was quietly La Liga's best midfielder last year. Karim Benzema is underappreciated at forward. Angel Di Maria still seems likely to be sold, but he's world class, too.
But none of those players offer what Bale offers, and that's pure power and athleticism.
Like Ronaldo, Bale is a physical specimen. He has a sturdy frame and blazing speed. He has deft control and a powerful shot from distance. He can create for his teammates or break down an opponent off the dribble with ease. He's a weapon in the air and few players in the world can deal with him in one-on-one situations.
From his position on the right wing, Bale can completely dominate a game. And we should see that more often this year as he comes into this season having had a full preseason with the club, which he addressed early this summer per Pete Jenson of the Daily Mail:
Asked about the advantage of not having played in the World Cup he added: 'It was disappointing not being in Brazil but I have had seven weeks of rest and I can now have a full pre-season.
'I want to have an even better season than last year: I want to give more assists and score more goals; I want to improve in every aspect.'
Last year as Bale’s transfer from Tottenham dragged on beyond the start of the season and he was left playing catch-up with his fitness. There were even doubts over whether he had been worth Real’s huge investment.
He said: 'It was tough adapting without a pre-season but this season will be different in that sense. It was a massive change for me but in time I have become very comfortable here.'
The more comfortable he is, the less comfortable Real Madrid's opponents will be.
In many ways, Bale already proved he was worth the investment. He scored 15 goals and added 12 assists in 27 La Liga appearances last season, while also notching six goals and four assists in 12 Champions League appearances. His 7.75 average match rating in La Liga play from WhoScored.com was topped only by Lionel Messi (8.42) and Ronaldo (8.25).
Not bad for a player "adjusting" to a new league and a club with a far higher profile than he experienced at White Hart Lane.
He didn't shy away from the big moments, either. Quite the contrary—he came up huge when Real Madrid needed him most. He scored the game-winning goal in the Copa Del Rey final with just five minutes remaining, as his blinding run down the flank and smart finish was the stuff of legend and another brilliant memory for lovers of El Clasico.
He also scored the go-ahead goal in extra time against Atletico Madrid in the Champions League final, opening up the floodgates for Real Madrid's eventual 4-1 win.
Two cup finals, two game-winning goals. Not too shabby, eh?
There's something important we haven't addressed yet, though, a key difference between Ronaldo and Bale. It's a difference even Ronaldo has picked up on and hinted at, as Bleacher Report UK tweeted:
Did you see it?
"He produces fantastic passes."
The thing about Bale is he isn't a selfish player. He's willing to set up his teammates, to play the facilitator on the right wing rather than treating the position like a second striker slot as Ronaldo often does on the left. At times, Ronaldo's body language on the pitch is almost screaming, "Don't worry about my effort right now, I'll score eventually and we all know it."
Ronaldo has earned the right to be selfish, of course—he's the world's most clinical finisher not named Messi (and last year, he was the world's most clinical finisher, period). But on a team with so many talented attackers, Bale's willingness to make the smart play rather than the selfish one will be huge this season.
For Galacticos, Part Dos to actually work this time around, Real Madrid can't have two selfish players streaming down the wing. Players like Mesut Ozil, Karim Benzema, Angel Di Maria and now Bale have all had success playing with Ronaldo because they aren't selfish players, despite boasting the talent to be me-first guys.
The difference, however, is none of those players have the sheer physical gifts of Bale. In many ways, given his size, athleticism and unselfish mentality, he could aptly be compared to LeBron James. He has the ability to completely dominate a game in a multitude of ways. Because of that, James generally dominates a game with his mind. Bale isn't quite there yet, but he's on his way.
And so, as Real Madrid try to lessen their Ronaldo addiction, the player they will turn toward to lead this all-star collection of talent is Bale. He's the guy who can come up in the clutch if necessary. He's the guy who can create something out of nothing. He's the guy who can keep this star-studded club cohesive by creating for his other talented teammates.
Real Madrid have long been deferring to Ronaldo, and the strategy has produced more good results than poor ones. Ronaldo is one of the truly unique talents the game has ever seen, after all. But this year, don't be surprised if Real Madrid often follow Bale's lead into victory.
The changing of the guard will slowly—and perhaps subtly—begin to take place this season. Ronaldo needs some rest. And Bale, frankly, needs the space to grow into the game's next superstar.
This is the year that Bale becomes Real Madrid's most important player. It really isn't as crazy as it sounds.