In the words of William Shakespeare: some of us are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them. Whilst this first appeared in his play Twelfth Night, he was actually prophesying the next few hundred years of the English footballing press.
Were he still alive today, he'd no doubt have been the smuggest bard in his local gastropub, laughing at the nauseous fawning and relentless sycophantic bluster that followed Gareth Bale's performance for Spurs against Newcastle. It was like the poor lad had gone to the loo and walked out with a column in every major newspaper stuck to the bottom of his socks.
Now before you reach for your internet survival kit, rummage for your most rotten tomato and hurl it at your own screen in anguish, I'll readily admit that Gareth Bale had a very good game on Saturday. In fact, he's played pretty well for the last few games. I'd even go so far as to say that, right now, Gareth Bale is an exciting young player enjoying some of the best form of his short career. So why can't anybody seem to distinguish between that and being one of the best players in the world?
Despite a relatively low-key start to his Tottenham career, Bale almost literally burst onto the world stage when he outstripped an ageing Brazilian full-back for pace twice in a Champions League game. Weeks later, a massive newspaper exclusive revealed that he was to be the subject of £40 million bids from the world's biggest teams. It seemed that after wasting all that time on some little Argentine with a Paul McCartney haircut, we'd found the real star of world football right on our own doorstep.
Except we hadn't. The season rolled on, these bids never materialised, and Bale resumed life as an exciting young player in an exciting young team on their way to a fifth-place finish, stopping briefly to spend the afternoon in Phil Neville's back pocket. Sanity, it seemed, had prevailed.
That was nearly two years ago now, and despite the initial assumption he was a Transformer that just so happened to take the shape of a hairless primate from Wales, he's enjoyed a perfectly natural development to his career. Sometimes he's played well, sometimes he's played badly, and every so often he's stolen the show. Y'know, like every good player does in their early 20s.
Now though, after a run of games that's seen him play some of the best football of his career, we're back in this post-Maicon fantasy that paints the image of him tying Messi's shoelaces together and throwing Ronaldo's lunch money into a swamp. Right-backs across the league are supposedly explaining to their doctors in mumbled detail about the jet engine that burst their ear drums while shrieking past them down the touchline.
It's probably to be expected, mind you. Now that we're merely living in the world as Mario Balotelli left it, press, pundits and punters alike suddenly need a new footballing story to fill the void. “The Premier League is home to one of the best players in the world, who is at a team that can't possibly hope to keep him” - this story contains so many potential plot lines that they might as well let fans ring up to decide which angle they go for next. “To have our cameraman spot Pep Guardiola watching him in the stands, press 1; to have him beat Guy Demel over 15 yards, press 2”.
But Bale's season as a whole throws up lots of interesting questions that are simply drowning in baseless acclaim. His total dependence on his stronger foot is an issue, but despite him missing an open goal on Saturday, it's not examined. His inability to influence a game unless space opens up behind the defence is a serious problem for an attacking player, but despite the obvious imbalance in his performances home and away, nobody's interested. His passing on Saturday was some of the most errant on the pitch, he didn't find a single team-mate with a cross, and Tim Krul's going to look back on both his goals with a “yeah, my bad” face on.
Saturday night's highlights showed Gareth Bale facing up to Jonas Guitterez, playing a clever one-two, and getting in behind him with his pace. Proof, if any was needed that he's a sensational winger who always beats his man. This was his only successful take-on out of the four he attempted in a wide area, with Mathieu Debuchy, Davide Santon, and James Perch either winning the ball from him or forcing him out of play.
True, Bale was the difference on Saturday. In the latter stages, when Newcastle pressed for a winner and then an equaliser, his ability to run at players and exploit the space was bordering on the sublime. But to say he dictated the game or carried Tottenham through it is ludicrous.
He might well be one of the best players in the world when the game's getting stretched, but the real greats have never needed a “when”. He's a very good player, in a very good team, enjoying a very good run of form, but that's all.
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