Juventus and Getafe. In European football, they're as contrasting as they come, clubs with little in common besides the game they play. But last season, despite their differences, they shared something: being present for emblematic moments of Gareth Bale's second season at Real Madrid.
On May 13, Juventus watched the Welshman up close as he misfired again and again, a slew of chances escaping him in the Champions League semi-final second leg. There were long-range efforts, there was a reflex shot from close range, a header from almost point blank. But the ball just wouldn't go in. It refused to go in. It was torturing Bale.
Ten days later, Getafe came to the same venue on La Liga's final day. On an afternoon without consequence, Cristiano Ronaldo registered a hat-trick, James Rodriguez curled in a stunner, Jese got in on the act, Martin Odegaard made his debut and a host of Real Madrid's lesser names were awarded playing time by Carlo Ancelotti. The match finished 7-3. Peripheral to all of it, Bale sat on the bench.
In 10 days, his season had been summed up.
For Bale, the second-season syndrome proved itself to be true. In the space of 12 months, he traversed the spectrum from barnstorming Brit abroad to banged-up Brit abroad. In the press, he was hounded. At the Bernabeu, he was whistled at. Team-mates fumed at him. His car was attacked.
Charting his highs and lows in Madrid is an exercise of extremes, and you can find a neat timeline of his career in Chamartin simply by browsing image libraries in chronological order—the first half is full of roars, celebrations and trophies; the second is littered with hands on hips, hands over face and empty stares.
In 2015-16, it has to change; you sense Bale won't survive in Madrid if he endures it all again. He'll be ostracised, chased out. Jeered intolerably. Though he remains a favourite of president Florentino Perez, the man who made him a €100 million player, Bale will run out of protection if he doesn't reverse the script.
Thus, he's now entering a season that will define his time at Real, a season that may well determine his future in the Spanish capital. Fail, and his stint at the Bernabeu will be forever tarnished, remembered for flashes of brilliance not being enough. Succeed, and along with Rodriguez, he'll soon be the face of this team.
But what constitutes success for the Welshman? It's an interesting question and one with slightly paradoxical answers.
Though football is a team game, defined by team results, collective triumph won't be enough for Bale this season. At Real Madrid, he's already won the Champions League, the Copa del Rey, the UEFA Super Cup and the Club World Cup. In the deciding games in three of those, he scored; in the other he provided two assists.
Already, there are only two trophies left for Bale to collect, but he now needs more than those. Trophies and magical moments constituted success in his first season; on their own, they won't in his third.
Instead, what Bale needs to achieve in 2015-16 lies on a more personal level: achieving sustained brilliance rather than spasmodic brilliance. Even if Real Madrid don't capture a string of titles, if the former Spurs star can be a force week in week out, he'll win them over—"them" being the press, the fans, the Bernabeu.
Just look at Rodriguez: Though he couldn't ultimately push Real Madrid past Barcelona, his consistent excellence on a personal level has made him a hit in Madrid. For Bale, that's the example.
The Welshman undoubtedly has the tools for the task. A breathtaking athlete, he has the power, the force, to physically dominate. In his locker he has exquisite free-kick skills, a hammer of a left foot, spring-like legs and pace to burn.
There are areas for improvement, yes, but most of what he needs he already has; it's now about channelling a single-mindedness to get it done, finding a get-out-my-f---ing-way mentality.
If he wants to be a star, he's got to think like one. Act like one. Be one.
This is not the time to be passive.
Positively for Bale, new manager Rafa Benitez has shown a commitment this pre-season to making the Welshman a focal point of a new-look Real Madrid. "Built around Bale," declared Marca, after the clash with AS Roma in Melbourne, a night that saw the man from Cardiff playing through the middle behind the striker.
It's a position that Bale has filled throughout the pre-season. Amid the shuffling of lineups, amid the absences of stars, amid significant rotation, the Welshman has been ever-present, consistently central in Benitez's XI.
The idea is clearly to give him freedom and space, broadening his role and influence rather than pigeonholing him. It gives Bale the chance to bolt, charge, dribble and shoot as he pleases, essentially returning him to the warp-speed battering-ram role he played at White Hart Lane.
"The forward players have the freedom to move around and switch positions," Benitez said earlier this month when explaining how Bale and the rest the attack will be in a fluid, positionally loose setup. "We are trying to make the most of Cristiano, Benzema, Bale and Jese."
As for the Welshman specifically: "Bale knows what he has to do and now we are working on improving the team's physicality, which in turn will result in him improving in terms of finding the target," Benitez added.
Whether Benitez is building a side around Bale by choice or whether he's doing so at the request of a president who wants to see a return on his massive investment is something that will be debated intensely. But for Bale, the reasoning is irrelevant: He's got the role he needs, the role he craves. But with it come immense responsibility and expectation. Pressure.
If this team is going to be built for him, he has to succeed.
Thus, the demands are high. Extremely high. Bale will need those rampant stretches, the five-goal-in-five game ones, the nine-in-10 sort. He'll need braces. The odd hat-trick. He'll need to create as well as score, defend as well as attack. But it's about more than that, too.
What Bale needs to do this season is show he can really dominate. The semi-frequent goal, the semi-regular assist and the odd magical moment won't be enough. It has to be relentless. He's got to take on Barcelona and win, personally. He's got to derail a major European rival. He's got to shake Diego Simeone's hold over Real. He's got to scare the life out of the bulk of La Liga.
It's got to be a season of swashbuckling displays, the best of his Tottenham days essentially given a Spanish twist.
Bale has the capacity to do it. He has it in him. But it must start now, in this season. A huge season.
A defining season.