At West Ham's Boleyn Ground on Monday evening, Gareth Bale continued his fine form for Tottenham with another performance that was a cut above the rest, taking his club to the heady heights of third in the Premier League. But whilst his recent spell of eight goals in six matches is worthy of headlines and high praise, the notion that he is anywhere near the standard of either Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo is completely absurd and unfounded. Rio Ferdinand clearly thinks as much, telling his Twitter followers on Wednesday morning: People mentioning Bale in the same breath as @cristiano + Messi really don't know football! Bale been 1 of best 2 in PL this year but- Rio Ferdinand (@rioferdy5) February 27, 2013 Without doubt, in recent weeks and months, Welsh wizard Bale has been magical for his club and country.
Whilst his latest scoring streak is naturally worth recognition, the manner in which he has been finding the back of the net is even more spellbinding. Bale's run of goals against Norwich, West Brom, Austria, Newcastle (two), Lyon (two) and West Ham (two) includes a brace of free-kicks, and five more strikes from outside the area - and it is these that have propelled him into the global spotlight, and prompted such hyperbole. It was against Norwich in April 2007 that I first came across a young Gareth Bale in person, as he entered the Southampton team coach in front of me as I passed the ground. It was at that moment that I rang my unusually football-devoted mother and proclaimed
"I've just stood by the next big thing in football."
Whilst Bale was certainly recognised as highly talented amongst those that concerned themselves with the game, I didn't expect to be distancing him from comparisons to the world's best nearly six years on. It's been well documented, especially over the last few days, that Bale had a particularly unfortunate start to his career at White Hart Lane after a £10million move to London. Injuries, plus the record of going 24 games in a Spurs shirt without tasting victory for his side, resulted in rumours he would be shipped off to either Birmingham or Nottingham Forest for around £3million. To both the credit of the manager at the time, Harry Redknapp (who stood by his left-back in the face of criticism, just like he did with a certain Frank Lampard at a similar age) and Bale himself, he then seized on the opportunities he was given. But it wasn't until he tormented Inter Milan's World Cup winning Brazil right-back Maicon, and walked away with the match ball under his arm at the San Siro in October 2010, that his great potential seemingly transformed into great ability.
Following that, Redknapp hailed Bale as an "amazing young player" and the world took note. But it's fair to say that the increased expectation wasn't instantly rewarded and up until his recent form, his critics would claim 'he's only had one good game against an ageing defender'. In his 75 appearances in all competitions between the game against Inter and the start of the current season, he scored a reasonable 20 goals at around a rate of one in five. Obviously, he will have featured at left-back in some of those fixtures, but through elements of both luck and desire, the Welshman has appeared to have found his best position now. Whilst inevitably followers of Spurs will be mocked for seemingly supporting a one-man team, it's the work of all around him that has contributed to both Bale's and Spurs' uplift.
The fact that Tottenham's average points per game with Mousa Dembele in the team is around 2.3, whilst without him it's 0.5, should really put the one-man-team argument to bed. And although it's true that no player has scored more goals in the Premier League in 2013 than Bale, that his goals return in the league (15) is the highest for a Spurs player since Dimitar Berbatov, and that he has equalled Freddie Kanoute's record of scoring in Tottenham's last five league games, at this stage he simply cannot draw genuine comparison to the two greats that are dominating the modern era. For instance, whilst Bale has an - albeit impressive - record of 15 league goals in 23 appearances this season, Ronaldo has equal goals to games at 24, and Messi is out on his own with 38 in 25. Not only that, but Ronaldo has provided five assists for his team, Messi has nine (joint second in the assist table for La Liga) whilst Bale has contributed just so far.
Looking back, Messi's 207 career league goals (in 205 starts) have all come in La Liga, and some may feel the Spanish top-flight lacks quality away from the big clubs which has allowed the Barcelona star to rack up such impressive stats. However, Ronaldo can point to the 84 goals he scored for Manchester United in 157 starts, and the 42 goals he bagged in all competitions in the 2007/08 campaign. Again, far outweighing anything Bale has achieved. It's said that statistics can tell you anything if you twist them, but the above says everything that needs to be said about the difference in class between the three of them. However, the manner in which Bale has recently dragged Spurs back into games and won points on his own is very similar to the Portuguese player that the 23-year-old Brit models himself on. If he keeps that form up for the rest of the season, then the argument gains a bit more credibility. But even then, for me, Bale is two to three years away from being fit to share the same stage as Messi and Ronaldo.
It's very easy to be caught up in the captions and exaggerations around players in the days of 24/7 coverage and social networking - but from the way his career at White Hart Lane began, nobody is better placed to advise on how form and results can quickly change than Bale himself. Spurs were once damned if he did, and now they're damned if he doesn't. But the Welshman still has a long way to go before he can be considered a real wizard amongst the elite. Rich Kitto