Gareth Bale & Tottenham's Second String Edge Past Antwerp, But Still Flatter to Deceive

By Sean Walsh
Dec 10, 2020, 10:35 PM GMT
How about some goals, Gareth?
How about some goals, Gareth? | Chloe Knott - Danehouse/Getty Images

From Tottenham Hotspur Stadium - Bloody love Gareth Bale, me. Absolute hero round these parts, always will be. I still have the grainy video recorded on my brother's old Blackberry of his winning free-kick in the last minute against Lyon in 2013. I still have his shirt from the 2011/12 season (signed by Nabil Bentaleb and Harry Kane, of course).

Thursday night's 2-0 win against Royal Antwerp in Spurs' final Europa League game was Bale's ninth appearance since returning to north London, his first in front of fans, and boy have they missed him.

His name was cheered the loudest. His chant was the first sung. His first chance, a flick on from a corner, was the first of the match altogether. The stage has been set on more than one occasion on these Europa League nights to showcase the Bale everyone remembers.

But it just hasn't clicked yet. His touches were loose. His runs were ill-timed. His teammates weren't helping either, mind. Spurs were flat in the first half, just not enough for their visitors to forge a meaningful opening.

Mourinho said after last week's draw with LASK that some players carried themselves as if they were above playing in the Europa League, and you could see his frustration with Spurs' lack of urgency again, sprinting to collect every ball that went out of play by the dugouts, dictating the defence's actions like a puppeteer (or Pep Guardiola).

The prince of Wales is home
The prince of Wales is home | Julian Finney/Getty Images

It can be hard for even pro athletes at the top of their games to come into makeshift teams willy-nilly, but Spurs have been playing two games every week pretty much all season now. Everyone's getting decent minutes. That excuse doesn't wash.

This wasn't a dead rubber match, either. In fact, it suited their needs to a tee - a must-win game against opposition they're much better than (or are supposed to be, anyway) with competition for places rife. But there was a lack of urgency and quality until Mourinho threw on two of the five or six best players in the Premier League, an indictment on the whole squad.

A game in which Spurs took 21 shots to two didn't tell the whole story. A game of football where Bale drives from deep and has six or seven pot-shots would be more productive than standing by the corner like Steph Curry and waiting for a perfectly-weighted through ball that isn't coming. He wasn't a passenger, but he wasn't the conductor either.

With 55 minutes on the clock, Lucas Moura drew a foul around 25 yards from goal. Bale territory, almost exactly where he scored that goal vs Lyon from. Surely not?

Well, yeah, it wasn't, but it was mighty close. Bale's dipping effort was tipped onto the post by Alireza Beiranvand, only for Carlos Vinicius to pounce and tap home the opener. Still, the Welshman got the credit from the 2,000 faithful spaced around Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.

But that was the end of his night, replaced by Son Heung-min with under an hour gone. Bale had a quiet game, yet still left fans on the edge of their seats and desperate for more.

Subbed before 60 minutes, eesh
Subbed before 60 minutes, eesh | Julian Finney/Getty Images

He still has more to do. I wrote recently about Bale's best role back at Spurs being as an impact sub or the second star if one of Kane or Son is unavailable, yet he still seems a worrying distance off that standard.

The rest of Mourinho's squad aren't escaping without criticism, but Bale is still viewed in many eyes as a superstar - he doesn't need to start acting like it, just part of the way will do. That's not too much to ask.