Welsh Wonders: How Gareth Bale and Ryan Giggs Are Having a Soccer Season to Remember

The past and future of Welsh soccer couldn't be in better form

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Michael Regan / Getty Images

Gareth Bale looks on as he sits out with an injury with Ryan Giggs during the Wales training session ahead of their UEFA EURO 2012 qualifier against England on March 25, 2011 in Cardiff, Wales.

With just under ten minutes to go in the first half of the North London derby between Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal on Sunday, Arsenal must have been pretty pleased with their performance. The build-up to the game had been dominated by talk of how Arsenal was possibly going to keep Tottenham’s man of the moment, the 23-year-old Welshman, Gareth Bale, in check. The winger – though winger barely does him justice, considering that he can play off the striker, or even back in defense if required – has been in the form of his young life, and Bale had scored eight goals in his previous six games. But up to this point in the game, Bale had been quiet.

Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger had already said that, “we don’t plan for anybody. It is always the same – focus on our strengths and forget about your opponent,” which sounded like an admirable plan on paper. Unfortunately for the under-fire Wenger, the game is played on grass. So when Spurs midfielder Gylfi Sigurdsson picked up the ball, Bale began to go through the gears. Bale is in such confident mood at the moment that he was happy to literally point out where he wanted the ball to be played. As Arsenal’s defenders acted as if they were statues – if they were trying to catch Spurs offside, it didn’t work – Bale flicked the ball past goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny with his fabled left foot to give the home side the lead, scoring his ninth goal in seven games. A couple of minutes later, teammate Aaron Lennon almost scored a carbon copy of Bale’s goal to double the lead, and Spurs would hold on for a 2-1 win, to increase their lead over Arsenal to seven points, in the race for fourth place in the standings, which helps in the quest to enter the coveted Champions League.

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Never mind fourth place. Spurs can realistically mount a challenge for third or even second spot in the English Premier League (EPL), especially if Bale keeps producing at this rate. The worry for the club, and their fans, who have never seen their side finish above Wenger’s Arsenal in the time the Frenchman has managed their rivals, is whether Spurs can hold onto the Welshman, who has now notched 20 goals this season. Bale is drawing comparisons to the two men generally regarded as the best players on the planet: Barcelona’s Lionel Messi and Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo. And while hyperbole is ingrained in sports, the way in which Bale has taken games by the scruff of their neck – witness his brace of goals in last week’s 3-2 road win at West Ham United, which included a sumptuous strike from fully 25 yards out in the last minute – is making clubs not just pay attention to his talents but supposedly weigh up paying a hefty transfer fee for his services.

Could the Spanish giants, Barcelona and Real Madrid, tempt Spurs with a bid in the region of $100 million? Real shelled out $131.6 million for Ronaldo in 2009 so it might not be out of the question. Former Spurs captain, Ledley King, sees it differently, telling the BBC  that “he’s enjoying it at Spurs. I wouldn’t see him in any rush to leave,” while his club manager, André Villas-Boas, recently said of Bale that “he inspires people and he is a direct influence on every single player.” But British bookmakers reckon that Bale is as short as even money to sign for Madrid, which is a far cry from Bale’s early days at Spurs, when the Londoners didn’t win any of the first 24 games he played for them.

Spurs fans will be hoping that Bale follows the same path as his fellow Welshman, Ryan Giggs, who made his debut as a 17-year-old for Manchester United in 1991 and never left. Now 39, Giggs has played (and scored) in every season of the EPL for United, winning so many medals that his trophy cabinet presumably beggars belief. Giggs just signed a new one-year contract, which should see him play past his 40th birthday this Nov. 29. “Ryan is an example to us all, the way in which he has, and continues to, look after himself,” said his manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, who handed him his debut for the club. “What can I say about Ryan that hasn’t already been said? He is a marvelous player and an exceptional human being.”

(TIME: How Manchester United Became the Biggest Soccer Team in the World)

Adding together his games for United, Wales and Team GB, Giggs was expected to make his landmark 1,000th senior appearance this past weekend in the EPL fixture against Norwich City. But Ferguson, whose team selections can’t be second-guessed, left him out, perhaps to keep him fresh for yesterday’s second-leg clash against Real Madrid in the Champions League (United clearly didn’t need Giggs against Norwich, strolling to a 4-0 victory).

The teams tied the first leg 1-1 in Spain, meaning that United carried a slight advantage due to their away goal. Would Giggs play a pivotal part at Old Trafford or would former United winger, Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo, who scored the equalizer in the Bernabeu, return to knock United out?

Perhaps it’s a tenuous link but the last time Manchester United hosted Real Madrid was in April 2003, in a game some believe to be one of the best ever in the history of European soccer. While United won 4-3, a hat-trick by the Brazilian Ronaldo meant that Madrid made it through 6-5 on aggregate. “The world will stop to watch this tie. I doubt expectations can be bigger than for this one,” said Madrid manager Jose Mourinho about the 2013 clash, and it was difficult to disagree.

(MORE: Will a Mourinho Team Best Barcelona?)

Giggs did start though Ferguson sprung a surprise by leaving Wayne Rooney on the bench, preferring to pack his midfield to nullify Madrid’s counter-attacking abilities. A cagey first half ended goalless, which was encouraging for United as a 0-0 tie would send them through on away goals. Giggs didn’t look out of place, despite being older than everyone on the field, including the 36-year-old Turkish referee Cüneyt Çakır, who had yet to play his part.

Three minutes into the second half and the home team took the lead through a Sergio Ramos own goal. In a strange way, it mattered little to Madrid who needed to score on the night to give themseleves a chance. But there was considerable controversy at the manner they were able to get back into the match. Referee Çakır sent off United’s Nani for his high challenge on Alvaro Arbeloa, even though his eyes were on the ball. Old Trafford was stunned and United would have to somehow see out the remaining 35 minutes a man down. The lead lasted another 10 minutes before substitute Luka Modric lashed in the equalizer. And three minutes later, Ronaldo completed the comeback with a neat finish, though he decided against celebrating in front of his former fans. Needing two goals to win the match and go through, it would have been a tough enough task for United if they’d had 11 men on the field, let alone 10, and despite a rousing finish, Giggs and his teammates couldn’t manage the miracle.

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