Real Madrid's Club World Cup victory over Copa Libertadores champions Gremio on Sunday was noteworthy as much for the squad at Zinedine Zidane's disposal as the eventual 1-0 victory, courtesy of a Cristiano Ronaldo free kick. The Frenchman, for the first time in 2017-18, had his full complement of players available in the Zayed Sports City Stadium, where he also fielded the same starting XI that played the Champions League final in Cardiff for only the second time this campaign.
It was a rare occurrence in Zidane's Madrid career, even if the occasion failed to live up to the rarefied hype that surrounded the final as Gremio managed a single, off-target, attempt on goal over the 90 minutes.
It also posed a question in a Clasico week that Zidane will have to ponder as the match against Barcelona draws closer. As has been his modus operandi in recent weeks, Zidane waited until after the 70-minute mark to make any changes and then brought on Lucas Vazquez and Gareth Bale within five minutes of each other, two players in direct competition for a starting berth in a 4-3-3.
In the absence of the Wales international, Zidane has leaned towards a 4-4-2 with Isco enjoying a run in the side as the fourth midfielder. With Bale back, the well-worn debate about "the BBC" will be front and centre this week -- even if Bale, Ronaldo and Karim Benzema haven't been in that combined position at the same time since the previous Liga Clasico last April.
Zidane has carved out a deserved reputation as an excellent man-manager. Nobody before the Frenchman took the reins at the Bernabeu was able to reel in Ronaldo's competitive edge, but last season the Portuguese was taken to one side and instructed in the importance of availability over invincibility: "It is important and he knows that he must rest sometimes," the Real boss said. "It is also an accumulation of all the years. He knows that as he is intelligent."
The result was Ronaldo hammering in 10 goals in the latter stages of the Champions League as Real secured a first European and Liga double in six decades.
Now, Zidane needs to have the same chat with Bale. Although four years younger than Ronaldo, the rigours of Bale's playing style have taken their toll. The Welshman has sat out a huge chunk of his Madrid career with a series of niggles and twangs, and whatever 2018 brings for "the BBC", it would be fitting if Bale spends the next six months on the pitch and not the treatment table.
It is sometimes easy to forget that the 28-year-old has stepped up in the absence of Ronaldo and scored title-securing goals.
The enduring image of La Decima is a shirtless Ronaldo basking in his own glory but it was Bale who made it 2-1 in extra time in Lisbon and knocked the remaining wind from Atletico's sails. It was also Bale's incredible 85th-minute charge in the 2013-14 Copa del Rey final, sans Ronaldo, that landed the domestic cup.
But a truth as uncomfortable as his seemingly endless injury problems is that Bale cannot perform to those levels week in, week out any more. It is enough of a miracle to get him on the pitch at all.
Zidane must recognize -- as he has to a lesser extent with the more resilient Ronaldo -- that Bale is a luxury item to be enjoyed in moderation.
Both Ryan Giggs and John Toshack have had their say on Bale's injury issues. The former Manchester United winger suggested changes to his playing style might help, and the ex-Real manager speculating that occupying the right instead of the left wing may be a contributing factor.
Zidane responded by describing Bale as a "complete player" but a brief flirtation with a central role under Rafa Benitez was swiftly shelved. The truth lies somewhere between all of those opinions. Bale does not possess Ronaldo's sangfroid or Benzema's subtlety but adds his own skill set to the whole with speed and a dribbling ability that even the Portuguese would grudgingly admire, an almost unmatched ability to hit a ball and vision that is perhaps undermined by the more obvious passing talents of Luka Modric and Toni Kroos.
Bale has demonstrated all of these assets in recent cameos from the bench, scoring the winner against Al-Jazira and turning the game against Fuenlabrada in the Copa with a much-needed injection of class. In his last game before injury struck, he scored and assisted another in the 3-1 Champions League win over Dortmund.
For the time being, Bale is best deployed as an impact player. In a second-half blitz, the Welshman has the ability to destroy a tiring defence. But until he puts a run of games together, the concern for Zidane is that another injury setback is just one burst of acceleration away: against Barcelona last April, Bale didn't make it to half-time.