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Thursday, December 8, 2022

Gareth Bale can still be a difference-maker for Wales at the 2022 World Cup

Los Angeles FC signed Gareth Bale to produce big moments for them. On Saturday, in the 128th minute of the 2022 MLS Cup Final, that’s exactly what he did. Bale scored a dramatic extra time equaliser, rising above the Philadelphia Union defense to head home the third goal of his short LAFC stint, and send the match to a penalty shootout from which his club emerged victorious. That, however, doesn’t tell the full story of Bale’s half-season in Major League Soccer.

Bale joined LAFC in June, but the 33-year-old started just two matches in MLS play. Even in the MLS Cup Final, the Welshman clambered off the bench after nearly 10 minutes of extra time. He wasn’t fit enough to start the match, and his lack of movement after introduction suggested the winger was barely fit enough to be on the pitch at all.

And yet Bale was still in position to score a crucial equaliser for his team. The 33-year-old might not be able to beat a man like he used to, he might not have the explosive pace that once made him so dangerous, but he still has the knack for delivering the goods when it matters most. That’s why Wales need him at the 2022 World Cup.

The plan was always that Bale would use a stint in MLS to get fit for the World Cup. The 33-year-old’s recent injury record is patchy and so he needed an environment where he would be given regular game time, but not driven into the ground before the start of the tournament in Qatar. LAFC made him an offer that fulfilled this criteria.

It’s true – Bale probably would have liked to get slightly more minutes in MLS this season. On the other hand, the over-analysis of his absence from the first team would surely be drastically larger had Welshman made the move to the Premier League or stayed in La Liga. The level of noise he experienced after eight seasons at Real Madrid was almost entirely muted once in LA. Mentally, he should be in a good place, particularly after winning MLS Cup.

Rob Page must find a way to harness Bale as an attacking threat for Wales at the World Cup. When fully fit, Bale is still a threat from wide, where he can attack the half spaces and drive towards goal, but his lack of fitness could prevent him from doing this in Qatar. Therefore we might see Bale deployed in a more central position for Wales.

“He’s a guy with big qualities and a guy who makes big plays,” LAFC head coach Steve Cherundolo said after Bale’s extra time performance against the Philadelphia Union. “Let’s hope he doesn’t in the first game of the World Cup for all the Americans in the room! But it’s Gareth being Gareth. He does it in training. He’s done it this season. When he’s feeling well and healthy, he makes a difference in games. That’s why we bring him in in those moments. I wish he was 24.”

The US men’s national team will open their World Cup campaign against Wales on November 21 and Bale will be the most concerning opposition threat to Gregg Berhalter and his players. Saturday’s MLS Cup Final proved why the 33-year-old must be covered at all times – the USA can’t allow him to be presented a chance like the one he converted against Philadelphia.

While Bale has already achieved so much over the course of his career, the next few weeks could be a defining period for him as a Wales player. The winger was a key figure as Wales made an unexpected run to the semi-finals of Euro 2016, but it’s been 64 years since the country appeared at a World Cup. 

Bale was the one who got them there with two winning goals in the play-off semi-finals and final. Wales are a well-organised, well-drilled team under Page, but Bale is their difference-maker. He’s the player who can create something out of nothing or finish an opportunity when others would crumble under the pressure and expectation.

The success or failure of Bale’s time at LAFC won’t be determined until the 2022 World Cup is over and the 33-year-old can assess whether the MLS club gave him what he wanted. It would be easy to write off the former Real Madrid and Tottenham Hotspur attacker, but his MLS Cup Final goal proves why that would be dangerous.

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