Bale's dwindling playing time after regaining fitness puts Madrid future in doubt

Gareth Bale has been prominent in the headlines after Real Madrid's victory over Leganes in midweek, his latest benching apparently not going down at all well with the Welshman. Various images in the sports dailies showed Bale glowering on the sidelines as his supposed understudy, Lucas Vazquez, stole the show in Butarque.

Coupled with a watching brief in the Bernabeu in the Champions League last week, rumours are rife of a summer departure for Bale, who through a combination of injuries and tactical decisions has managed only 1,342 minutes this season -- fewer than reserve keeper Kiko Casilla.

When Bale has played, he has generally played well. His second-half introduction against Paris Saint-Germain helped to turn the game in Real's favour and he displayed his explosive pace again against Leganes in a late cameo, but a player of his stature will not take kindly to too many afternoons shifting his weight about on the bench, particularly as he now appears to have fully recovered from his injury problems.

After the Leganes game, Zinedine Zidane was quick to praise Vazquez and Marco Asensio, both of whom offer more defensive graft than their more celebrated attacking teammates. Injuries forced Zidane's hand in Butarque but his 4-2-3-1, with Casemiro and Mateo Kovacic holding the fort, permitted Real's front four to interchange positions with Karim Benzema dropping back to link play, Isco operating in a free role and the pace of Asensio and Vazquez opening up the home side's back four.

The first half was one of Real's better 45 minutes this season and achieved without Bale or Cristiano Ronaldo, which poses Zidane with yet another selection dilemma.

Bale's price tag is at least half of the issue, but the Welshman has had it a lot better than the club's summer reinforcements. Dani Ceballos is the perfect example. Signed for €18 million from Real Betis after a spectacular European Under-21 Championship with Spain, the 21-year-old started against Alaves on Sept. 23 and scored both goals in a 2-1 victory in Mendizorrotza. He has subsequently started just one Liga game, last October, and since then has featured for a grand total of 32 minutes -- or 31:31 after he came on for just 29 seconds in Butarque.

Madrid welcome Alaves to the Bernabeu on Saturday and Zidane will have to contend without Marcelo, Toni Kroos, Luka Modric, Sergio Ramos -- who is serving a one-game ban -- and possibly Asensio, who had his wisdom teeth removed on Friday. But it is extremely unlikely that Ceballos, Marcos Llorente or Borja Mayoral will get a look-in, the Frenchman clearly having decided that none are up to the task.

With the form Alaves are in, Zidane will not be in the mood for experimentation as he seeks to add to Real's run of four consecutive wins in all competitions: it is a measure of how badly 2017-18 has gone that victory on Saturday would represent the first time his side have won five on the bounce all season.

There are three certainties in Spain: taxes, overuse of car horns and the Abelardo effect. One of La Liga's most underrated managers, the former Barcelona defender worked miracles at Sporting Gijon, gaining promotion to the Primera and keeping them there before leaving in tears, shared by his players and staff, in January 2017. Sporting slumped into Segunda five months later.

Brought in as Alaves' fourth coach of the season on Dec. 1 with El Glorioso propping up the table, Abelardo has won seven of his 11 games in charge, losing only to Atletico Madrid, Athletic Bilbao and Barcelona while guiding his side to 15th and 10 points clear of the relegation zone. His win percentage of 66.7 is only marginally short of Zidane's overall record of 71.3 in all competitions at Madrid. Given the clubs' respective resources, it is an incredible achievement.

"Abelardo has brought simplicity to the club and the squad," said Alaves winger Ibai Gomez ahead of the game. "In football, it is getting more and more difficult to come across unassuming people, and that's good for us."

"Simplicity" may not be a generally complimentary term but in Alaves' case it has been a byword for a complete turnaround. Abelardo has shorn up the back four and got his side scoring as well. By contrast, while Zidane pointed to 26 goals in six games during his pre-match news conference, he also admitted Real "have always conceded goals and I think we'll continue to concede them."

On Saturday, as the Frenchman noted, Real face a well-organised team who have beaten Celta Vigo, Villarreal and Deportivo La Coruna in their past three Liga outings and will not give an inch.

But the question marks surrounding Bale will again overshadow whatever happens on the pitch. The Wales forward can expect a start, but only because of Zidane's depleted squad. It will be in Paris in 10 days' time when that issue will come to a definitive head.