Spurs must do their bit to ensure Bale remains boy down the Lane
Gareth Bale celebrates after scoring this second goal from a free kick against Olympique Lyonnais at White Hart Lane on Thursday night, the latest glorious strike in a great season. Photograph: Paul Gilham/Getty Images
SOCCER ANGLES:Top four finish and Champions League spot needed to keep whizz kid at the club, writes MICHAEL WALKER
Gareth Bale is on the run. Bale is charging into territory occupied only by those who have been scintillating at the highest level of the game. He has become one of those players people pay to watch, a player the rest of the game revolves around.
Tottenham Hotspur have a had a few in their time, plenty of supporters watched Glenn Hoddle, and only Glenn Hoddle, when he was at White Hart Lane, and for Bale to be mentioned in this company shows the development of the 23-year-old Welshman.
He has become good enough for the English to be openly regretful of his nationality.
It happened with Ryan Giggs, with Roy Keane, and with Kenny Dalglish long before. It is a back-handed, cack-handed compliment, one with which Bale will be at ease. If he is brattish, he hides it well; he has taken to understanding that compliments come in varieties in football.
There is the obvious form: the season before last Bale was voted player of the year by his fellow professionals. That is usually a signal that quality has arrived. Then there is the clamour industry – speculation that links Bale with Barcelona or Real Madrid after every effervescent display, and there have been a few of those of late.
Then there’s the match day practical praise. Increasingly Bale has found that his is “double-teamed”. Which aggravates him.
Adapt my game
“I’ve had to adapt my game, mix it up,” he said midway through last season. “It’s something I want to do to improve, something I have to do. I’ve started to come inside a lot more and that has made me a better player and harder to play against.
“But having two people on you blocking a pass is frustrating. It annoys me, I’d rather have a one-on-one, but it’s kind of a compliment. If they are developing tactics to try to stop me, it shows that I’m doing well. But it is annoying.”
Bale made that remark over a year after terrorising Inter Milan, then champions of Europe, in the Champions League. This shows Bale has now been excellent on a consistent basis, a mark of true pedigree.
Yesterday morning the back pages in England were again dominated by Bale’s antics, this time from Thursday night’s Europa League tie against Lyon at White Hart Lane.
Bale’s two goals – in a 2-1 win – were free-kicks of devastating swerve and speed and in themselves were something to cherish. But it is the fact Bale has now scored seven goals in his last five matches, and in the space of five days delivered two doubles to beat Newcastle United, then Lyon, that really makes you think he has entered a new phase.
Cast some doubt
Arsene Wenger cast some doubt on this theory yesterday, downplaying Bale by comparing him to Lionel Messi – “Messi has won two or three Champions Leagues, a few championships, scored 95 goals in a year, so let’s not go too quick,” Wenger said – but that misses the point that Messi is a phenomenon. Bale isn’t, but he is some player, one who could transform a better side than Tottenham.
A more appropriate comparison, perhaps, is with Cristiano Ronaldo. There is a high-speed winger element to this, of course, but there is also added goals. Bale has 21 this season, and it’s February. What’s more, some have been superb – his run from inside his own half against Norwich City to score a late equaliser last month, actually had the whiff of George Best about it.
With a new four-year contract signed last summer, and with a new baby, Bale’s future at Tottenham should be a reliable peg for manager Andre Villas-Boas and those above him. But this is football and it seems like two things need to happen in the next few months to ensure Bale remains at White Hart Lane.
The second springs from the first, which is that Spurs must make the top four places and trust that what happened to them last May with Chelsea, does not happen again.
Then Spurs finished fourth on 69 points but lost their Champions League place when Chelsea, who came sixth in the Premier League, produced that triumph in Munich.
With Manchester United likely to win the Premier League, their progress in Europe will not affect Tottenham. But this is where Wenger comes back in. Arsenal are the other English club left in Europe and it would fit Spurs’ fans doomed sense of themselves to think of Arsenal winning the Champions League to deny them their place in it.
That is hard to foresee – good news for Spurs. Around 69 points should again secure a top four place, and the financial wherewithal to rebuff bids for Bale, but that will require them to maintain their form and victory level for the rest of the season. Arsenal lurk here, too.
Failing to stay the course is why Harry Redknapp is no longer manager. And he also had passages when Bale was unstoppable. Despite the evidence Bale has been serving up this season – again – he cannot do it all on his own.
Coming of age Jones beginning to live up to hype
As someone who has been resistant to the hype surrounding Phil Jones, it was with some surprise to discover a few weeks ago that Phil Jones is 20. That changed things, altered the perception of the young centre-half who can play midfield, it appears, with a veteran’s ease.
On seeing Jones roaming around the Bernabeu on Wednesday night as a key Manchester United performer, the hype looked for the first time to be at least worthy of some form of discussion.
It was Bobby Charlton, no less, who the Christmas before last, when Jones was 18, said that Jones carried similarities with Duncan Edwards. Given the emotional pull of Charlton and Edwards, this sounded over the top and it does still.
But Jones will be 21 next week – his birthday is the date that Edwards died, February 21 – and his all-round display against Real Madrid had a coming-of-age feel to it.
On leaving Celtic Park on Tuesday night, there was a small ball of criticism beginning to roll in the direction Neil Lennon. It was said that Lennon had risked too much on the doubtful fitness of Efe Ambrose, back from the African Nations Cup final and a long flight.
Ambrose had a game to forget, but how many alternatives did Lennon have? Juventus’s victory in Glasgow was in one sense a victory of superior resources. Lennon has a decent starting XI, who have surpassed themselves in Europe. Juve have a squad.