There was a period not so long ago when Gareth Bale appeared highly likely to join Cristiano Ronaldo out of the Real Madrid exit door.
In the wake of the Champions League final in Kiev, both were non-committal about their futures, but it was the Portuguese’s words that garnered more column inches.
The Welshman’s message was simple. “I need to be playing more. We’ll sit down with my agent in the summer.” The inference was crystal clear.
And then, like a wrecking ball at the Santiago Bernabeu, Zinedine Zidane appeared before the world’s media to announce his resignation as Head Coach.
Those closest to the Frenchman may have known, but it was a hugely unexpected bombshell that rocked the foundations of the club.
Somewhere, squirrelled away, Bale would have been grinning like a Cheshire cat.
Though he never publicly fell out with the coach, a lack of minutes on the pitch clearly put considerable strain on their working relationship.
His towering overhead kick in the final against Liverpool merely underscored what Bale was capable of when given the opportunity.
With Zidane now out of the picture, Julen Lopetegui has wiped the slate clean and is determined to give all of his squad an equal chance to impress.
There have already been suggestions that Bale will be expected to be the main man up front but the question has to be asked as to whether he’s comfortable and indeed capable in such a role.
Against Manchester United in the International Champions Cup friendly in Miami, he was anonymous. That it’s ‘only’ pre-season should make no difference whatsoever to how a player prepares himself, and if a 45-minute period where only one run and shot was the best Bale had to offer is a guideline, it’s going to be a long season.
Goals were almost exclusively Ronaldo’s preserve mind, and to expect Bale to weigh in with such an amount is preposterous. He’s never hit those heights in his entire career, and stationed predominantly on the wing, he’ll not do so again in 2018/19.
Karim Benzema will have to shoulder the main responsibility for goals and that’s a big ask given how poorly he performed in the last campaign, but perhaps with Ronaldo out of the picture, he can flourish.
The Welsh flyer has to stick to what he’s good at and known for if he wants to influence the side to any great degree. Lopetegui will understand that of course, and there’s no suggestion that Bale will be played down the middle at any point.
The real issue for the coach and the team is - when their backs are against the wall - does Bale have enough about him to inspire and to lead? To dig Real Madrid out of a hole or drag them kicking and screaming into battle?
To this point, there’s not been too much of an argument as to his qualities, but leadership has never been one of them.
With Vinicius on board at just 18, and other strikers at the club either not experienced or not old enough, there remains an absolute need for Bale to grasp the nettle and take control.
Sergio Ramos will marshal from the back, and Lopetegui has a handful of candidates in the midfield to call upon when the going gets tough.
It’s time for the Welshman to stand up and be counted and prove to everyone that it’s not just inferior opposition that he shines against. That the Champions League final wasn’t just another spike in his Real career.
Consistency at the highest level is what’s needed now, allied to goals, assists and leadership qualities.
It’s a lot to ask but he’s been given the platform he’s wanted for the last two years. Now it’s time to take centre-stage and prove he can be the main man.