MADRID (Reuters) - Playing in the Champions League final in his hometown of Cardiff was a dream scenario for Real Madrid’s Gareth Bale but there is popular clamour in Spain for the club’s record signing to sit out Saturday’s showpiece to make way for in-form Isco.
Bale has endured a difficult fourth season with Real littered with injuries which have limited him to 24 starts, and when he has been fit he has struggled to replicate his form of last year and his spectacular Euro 2016 campaign with Wales.
Yet even though his time at Real has been interrupted by 17 injuries, Bale has been decisive in finals.
He scored a breath-taking solo goal to win the 2014 King’s Cup against Barcelona and headed his side in front for the first time in their 4-1 win over Atletico Madrid in the 2014 Champions League final.
In the 2016 final against Atletico, he set up Sergio Ramos’s opening goal and scored in Real’s penalty shootout win.
Yet the overwhelming feeling in Spain is that Bale could hinder Real’s chances of beating Juventus and the Spanish media are crying out for midfielder Isco to start in his place in Cardiff.
Spain international Isco has come into his own in the final stretch of the season while Bale has been out with a calf injury.
Isco, voted Real’s player of the season by the club’s supporters, has scored five goals and provided three assists in his last eight games, prompting Spanish daily Marca to remark that leaving him out of the Champions League final would be “the biggest injustice in memory”.
While the Spaniard lacks the physical prowess of Bale, many believe he is better suited to the team’s play due to his vision and dribbling ability, while German international Toni Kroos has admitted he prefers the four-man midfield the team usually employ when Isco plays.
That shape has proven more effective than the 4-3-3 in which Bale usually operates, giving Real greater control in midfield and unleashing Cristiano Ronaldo in the centre forward role.
Bale’s best hope of starting in Cardiff ahead of Isco is that coach Zinedine Zidane continues to show loyalty to the Wales international over Isco, who has started only four of 12 Champions League games.
The Frenchman has passionately defended the under-performing Bale, and remarked earlier in the season that he would always pick Bale, Ronaldo and Karim Benzema if the trio were available.
Bale returned to training from injury eight days before the final, but with him not playing since April 23, Zidane’s faith is about to face its sternest test yet.
Editing by Ed Osmond