Gareth Bale's career at a crossroads that could lead to Real Madrid exit
CARDIFF, Wales -- Gareth Bale should be preparing for the crowning moment of his career in the Champions League final against Juventus in Cardiff on Saturday, but the Real Madrid winger is instead approaching a crossroads that could lead him all the way back to the Premier League this summer.
Bale's career has not been short of unforgettable moments, the kind that are probably framed images on the walls of his Madrid villa, but lifting the European Cup in the city of his birth, just 3 miles down the road from the Eglwys Newydd Primary School at Whitchurch where he first kicked a football as a 5-year-old, would top the lot.
The 27-year-old has already won two Champions League titles with Real, in 2014 and 2016, and his contribution to Wales' fairy tale at Euro 2016, when Chris Coleman's team made it all the way to the semifinals, cemented his status as a Welsh icon.
Bale may end up surpassing Ryan Giggs and Ian Rush, two fellow Welsh sporting legends, by claiming a third Champions League winners' medal if Real overcome Juventus at the Principality Stadium this weekend, but even the player himself is approaching the most symbolic game of his career worried that it may pass him by.
Sidelined for the past six weeks with a calf injury, the former Tottenham player is fighting a losing battle to win a place in Zinedine Zidane's starting XI, and even if he proves his fitness, the wonderful recent form of Isco suggests the best Bale can hope for is a place on the substitutes' bench.
"I am not 100 percent," Bale said during Real's media day on Tuesday. "I haven't played for six or seven weeks and I obviously had my operation, which still really hasn't recovered.
"If I'm called upon to start, I will start, obviously. But to last 90 minutes ... I haven't played a lot of football this year since my operation, so that would be difficult. And Isco has been playing fantastically well for us, at the end of the season, so whatever the manager decides, I will accept it."
The odds are heavily stacked against Bale facing the Italian champions, and he may not even get off the bench. Even if he does, his recent lack of match action would suggest that any involvement would be the result of a late gamble by Zidane in the event of his team chasing the game.
But while Bale will feel personal pain should he fail to contribute to a Champions League final in his home city, his absence would also raise questions about his future at the Bernabeu and what happens next for the Welshman. The crossroads that Bale is approaching could see his hugely successful career in Spain come to an end, with the Premier League his most likely destination.
Since arriving for a then-world-record €100 million (£85.1m) from Tottenham in 2013, Bale has remained one of the favourite players of Real president Florentino Perez, who has long regarded him as a natural heir to Cristiano Ronaldo. Yet Ronaldo, at 32, is showing no sign of vacating the stage, and Bale, just like the real Prince of Wales, may begin to wonder if he will ever get to wear the crown.
Injuries have restricted him to just 26 appearances for Real this season, and his misfortune opened the door for Isco to seize his opportunity, with the 25-year-old becoming a pivotal figure during the final weeks of the season as they claimed the league title.
With Bale, the Madrid side get pace, power and goals; Isco adds more silk, flair and movement. But, crucially, the reigning European champions do not appear weaker with Isco in the team rather than Bale.
Real have shown they can survive and prosper without Bale, and that is a worrying development for the player, especially when wealthy Premier League clubs such as Manchester United would be prepared to pay whatever is required if Real indicate a willingness to sell.
If Real are to pursue a move for Monaco's Kylian Mbappe, they will need to generate funds from sales and Bale would be vulnerable, not only because of the money his transfer would raise but also because Mbappe's arrival would push him further down the pecking order.
CHAMPIONS LEAGUE FINAL: REAL MADRID 4-1 JUVENTUS
- Report | Ronaldo hits 600th career goal | Bale's joy
- Marcotti: Real show their greatness | History made in Cardiff
- WATCH: Ronaldo's brace (U.S.) | UCL sights & sounds (U.S.)
- Play of the Day: Mandzukic's golazo | WATCH: Ronaldo heroic
- Ogden: Ronaldo comes full circle | Jones: Buffon's woe
- WATCH: Ramos' son fits in the cup | Real lift the trophy
- Buffon: It all went wrong | Ratings: Real Madrid
So is this the summer that United finally get their hands on a player they have pursued consistently since he left Spurs for Real in 2013?
Back in 2013, United outbid Real, offering in excess of £100m, but Bale had already decided on Madrid and he was unmoved by a late attempt by David Moyes to sell Old Trafford as a more appealing destination.
In the summers since, United have repeatedly asked Real about his availability, only to be knocked back every time, with Bale himself doing little to encourage their interest.
The landscape has changed, however, and the Champions League final may be a glimpse into the future for Bale if he stays at Real. At 27, he is at the peak of his career and he will not want to spend it in Ronaldo's shadow or vying with Isco or Mbappe for a place in the team. But if the end is nigh at Real, his options are limited.
Carlo Ancelotti would gladly take him to Bayern Munich -- though the German champions would find it difficult to compete with United's financial power -- yet beyond Bayern and United, it is difficult to identify clubs with the resources to back up their ambition.
United, for the moment at least, are pursuing other targets, having learned the hard way that too much time spent focusing on Bale can take their eye off other potential signings. But the picture may alter after this weekend if Bale misses out on one of the biggest games of his career and Real carry on regardless.
One way or another, Saturday in Cardiff will carry great significance for Bale. It is just a matter of time before we discover which direction it takes him.
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_