Bale rolls back the years for Wales to show what Madrid are missing
Until Gareth Bale pulled up with cramp late in Wales' 2-1 win over Austria in their World Cup play-off semi-final, there was little to suggest this was a man desperately short of action for his club.
Once again the Real Madrid forward was back to his brilliant best for his country on Thursday, scoring two stunning goals to carry Wales to within one match of a first World Cup since 1958 in a raucous Cardiff stadium.
Reaching a World Cup is one of few major milestones left for Bale after a trophy-filled career.
The Welshman, a four-time Champions League winner and two-time La Liga champion with Real Madrid, has lifted his country to new heights, reaching the semi-finals at Euro 2016 and the last 16 of Euro 2020.
Yet, bizarrely, one of the world's highest-paid players might not play another minute of competitive football until he rejoins his international teammates in three months' time.
Bale has played a total of 77 minutes for Madrid since he appeared for Wales in November and did little to appease his critics in the Spanish capital after the Wales match.
The 32-year-old was accused of a lack of commitment and professionalism by the Madrid press for pulling out of last weekend's match against Barcelona, which Real lost 4-0, only to declare himself fit for Wales days later.
"I'm not sending a message to anyone," he told Sky Sports of his badge-kissing celebration on Thursday. "It's a waste of my time. It's disgusting and they should all be ashamed of themselves."
- Champions League winner -
Bale's eight years with Real have been lit up by occasional magical moments, most notably an acrobatic overhead kick to help beat Liverpool in the 2018 Champions League final.
But for most of his time in Spain, Madrid fans have been frustrated by his fitness issues and inability to show the form he regularly does at international level.
Any doubts over Bale's priorities were laid bare when he celebrated Wales' qualification for Euro 2020 in November 2019 with a flag declaring "Wales. Golf. Madrid. In that order".
Since then he has never been more than a bit-part player for the Spanish champions and spent last season on loan back at Tottenham, a move suspected to be motivated by Bale's desire to get match-fit for Euro 2020.
Bale failed to produce his best during his second spell at Spurs -- the club where he became a superstar -- but it did get him in shape to lead his country back into the knockout stages of a major tournament.
Bale's lucrative contract in Madrid finally comes to an end at the end of the season. His next move may well be dictated by whether he has a World Cup to prepare for in November.
The Dragons will have home advantage again for their play-off final against Scotland or Ukraine in June.
Bale has consistently shown an ability to put any issues with form or fitness at club level to one side and inspire a nation once he puts on the red shirt of Wales.
"I'll run myself into the ground for this country," he said.
Both Bale and Wales' other star man -- Aaron Ramsey -- know age and fitness issues mean this could be their final chance to play on the global stage.
"It's not been easy for him, but coming and playing for his country means everything to him," said Ramsey.
That much they have known in Madrid for many years.