For a decade Gareth Bale has been Wales‘best player, a talismanic figure whose rare talent has helped them compete with the elite, yet he heads to the World Cup with question marks over whether he can still deliver at the highest level.
As Wales’ all-time top scorer with 40 goals in 108 caps, Bale’s pedigree is not in doubt.
He booked their place at the tournament for the first time in 64 years almost single-handedly, with all three of their goals in their playoff wins over Austria and Ukraine.
Yet a switch to Major League Soccer with Los Angeles FC, which was intended to help him build form and fitness away from the glare of Europe’s major leagues, has seemingly failed to get going.
It began full of promise with Bale netting twice in his opening four MLS games, but he has not scored since. He has made 12 appearances in the MLS this season, making just two starts.
He has not played more than about 60 minutes in any MLS game and has often been limited to a late cameo role but will hope to play a part in Saturday’s MLS Cup final against Philadelphia.
In his last Wales outing, a 1-0 defeat by Poland in September, he was clearly not at peak fitness, much to the frustration of Wales boss Rob Page.
“We will be in contact with the club and help manage those minutes,” he said at the time.
Yet Wales fans may be cheered by the fact that Bale’s club form has rarely been a barometer of how he will perform for the national team.
When his playing time at Real Madrid was becoming more limited, he held up a flag with a pointed message: ‘Wales, Golf, Madrid – in that order’.
And his performances for his country have rarely disappointed.
With Bale in the side, Wales are getting used to making major championships, which had previously been tantalizingly out of reach.
They got to their first European Championship in 2016, making the semi-finals, and qualified again for Euro 2020, before reaching the World Cup for the first time since 1958 where they face England, Iran and the United States.
While Bale may have lost some of his pace, he remains capable of producing moments of genuine brilliance.
His dead ball ability is elite, as he demonstrated with a stunning free kick against Austria in the playoff semi-final, while he showed he remains a threat in the box with a brilliant finish on the turn for their second goal in that game.
At 33, his career may be in its twilight, but Bale has warned against reading too much into his MLS displays.
“We have a plan in LA with what we’re doing,” he said recently. “Every footballer wants to play as much as they can, but we’re being clever and building myself up for the last important part of the season. Hopefully that should put me in great shape for the World Cup.”