During his final season at Tottenham Hotspur, Gareth Bale scored 21 goals in 33 appearances, a potent stretch of form that earned him the PFA Player of the Year award and a world-record move to Real Madrid.
Of course, that coming-of-age campaign was many years in the making; in terms of finding the net, the Welsh winger steadily improved during all five of his full seasons at White Hart Lane, in the process transforming from a lanky teenage full-back into a beastly force of a wide forward.
Nothing is certain in football, but having made his debut for Southampton as a16-year-old, Bale’s ascendency to the level of three Champions League titles in the space of four years followed a line of extrapolation that could have been accurately predicted much earlier in his career.
Yet, no goal during the 2012/13 season resonated in significance quite like the last-minute winner against West Ham in February. If the dazzling destruction of Inter Milan’s Maicon in 2010 announced Bale as an incredible talent in the making, and if goals in the finals of the Copa del Rey and the Champions League cemented his status in the bracket of world-class, the stunning strike to sink the Hammers was the climax of the relentless progression in between.
It was the goal that confirmed Bale as a match-winner and justified Real Madrid’s decision to invest a staggering £87million (back when £87million truly was staggering) in his services.
It was not the first telling goal Bale had netted that season. He’d already produced five game-winning goal, defined as strikes that put Tottenham into a lead they managed to hold onto, and two winners in the traditional sense of the phrase.
But if a 78th-minute winner over Newcastle the fixture prior highlighted Bale’s rise to undisputed Tottenham talisman, the even later thunderbolt against West Ham epitomised something else altogether; not only the physicality, the technique and intelligence to decide games single-handed but most crucially, the desire and mindset to consistently do so.
That’s what the goal against West Ham reeked of – pure desire. Bale takes the ball from his own half, surges at the Irons defence, gallops past one defender, shields off another just enough to pass the ball before being fouled, picks himself up off the floor, takes the ball back, turns and unleashes a ripping shot overloaded with power and curl straight into the top corner of Jussi Jaaskelainen’s net.
The passage of play didn’t so much resemble a man against boys, as it did men against an unstoppable, almost godly force determined to settle a tight-knit London derby.
Since that goal, Bale’s life has never been the same. In fact, he finished the season by scoring six more in ten games, including two against two of the Premier League’s top four – Arsenal and Manchester City – three game-winning goals and two out-and-out winners, taking on Tottenham’s ambitions to qualify for the Champions League almost single-handed.
Once again, it wasn’t just ability that made the Welshman such a desired talent in the subsequent summer, but the sheer drive and will to match it.
That was a telling feature of his first season at the Bernabeu as well, highlighted by those goals in consecutive cup finals. The deciding strike in the El Clasico Copa del Rey was all about desire too; Bale picking up the ball in his own half, driving into space on the counter and beating a Barcelona defender for pace and power before squeezing a shot under Jose Pinto.
Fittingly, it was scored with just two minutes left on the clock. His Champions League final goal, meanwhile, although considerably less aesthetic, vitally broke the deadlock in extra time, in a clash Real Madrid went on to win 4-1 as Atletico crumbled at the final hurdle.
If there’s one criticism to be had, however, it’s whether Bale still possesses that unstoppable level of drive. Injuries have unquestionably been a factor, but since his first season at the Bernabeum just three of Bale’s 46 goals have been out-and-out winners, just 10 have come in the final 20 minutes of games and excluding the Club World Cup, none have come in the latter stages of cup competitions – all provided in either La Liga or the group stages of the Champions League.
Of course, Bale’s role at the Bernabeu is considerably less talismanic than during his last season at Tottenham Hotspur; he’s not leaned on to get his side over the winning line in quite the same way.
But after four years in the Spanish sun, during which Real Madrid have completely dominated Europe with almost surprising ease and lost just 18 league games, you have to wonder whether Bale still has the determination and desire to equal his match-winning ability.
With luscious locks, Barcelona on the decline and trophies galore, it’s all become a little too easy.