Asensio, not Bale, is Real solution to slump
Zidane must pick irrepressible Asensio over indifferent Bale to arrest Real slump
At Real Madrid right now, the battle between Marco Asensio and Gareth Bale for the hearts and minds of Madridistas highlights the club's underlying problem.
Locals want Asensio in and Bale out, with coach Zinedine Zidane caught in the middle of a political, selection dilemma.
Seven points behind Barcelona and toiling in front of goal, Real require a shake-up ahead of their clash at Alaves tonight, but there's an internal power struggle at work.
Club chairman Florentino Perez favours the status quo, those magnificent Meringues who gave him three Champions League trophies in four years.
But the status quo failed to score for the first time in 74 La Liga games in their 1-0 home loss to Real Betis on Wednesday.
Madrid's nemesis, Lionel Messi, has as many goals - nine - as the Real team combined.
Barcelona are flying. Real are flailing, already in eighth position after eight games and caught at a crossroads.
There's an ongoing tussle between established Galacticos and emerging talents with Zidane seemingly unwilling - or unable - to give youth a chance.
Against Betis, Zidane picked an unfit Cristiano Ronaldo alongside an out-of-sorts Bale, just days after rewarding the injured Karim Benzema with a new contract.
Real are sticking with the tried and tested, regardless of form and fitness, and the natives are growing restless.
The Bernabeu faithful adore Asensio and with good reason.
When he was young, the Spaniard suffered from a developmental dysfunction that affected his joints.
He endured so much in his legs and ankles during youth games that he often had to be carried from the pitch.
But he overcame his physical obstacles to morph into the most exciting Real player in years.
Still only 21, he's already seen off the challenges of James Rodriguez and Lucas Vazquez and offers Zidane a creative versatility in different positions.
Equally adept on either flank or roving in a No. 10 role, the speedster was a key reason why Real didn't suffer too many sleepless nights when Kylian Mbappe rejected their half-hearted overtures.
They had Asensio for the future. The trouble is his form and focus deserve regular selection now, but Bale stands in his way.
During the Welshman's prolonged injury absence last season, the likes of Asensio and Isco ensured that Bale wasn't particularly missed.
But Real's most expensive signing has returned and presumably expects regular selection. His president certainly does.
Perez, the former impatient collector of Galacticos, now advocates stability and continuity. The message is clear. If Bale, Ronaldo and Benzema are available, they play, despite the 90 years among them.
But a couple of plodding performances from Bale, 28, has increased the pressure on Zidane.
The Frenchman was recently asked if Asensio's rapid development meant that Bale should start looking over his shoulder.
"Gareth is Gareth," replied Zidane, a cryptic response open to all kinds of interpretation.
Others are in no doubt.
Jorge Valdano, a former Real player, coach and sporting director, recently accused Bale of never fully settling at the club - in his fifth season, he still hasn't learned Spanish.
Asensio had to overcome physical hurdles to make his mark in the Real dressing room. Bale had to learn Spanish.
If the comparison seems disingenuous and unfair, the perception remains nonetheless.
Bale's languid, laidback style, both on and off the pitch, is being misinterpreted as a lack of application and a genuine cause for concern.
Real appear a faster, more fluid side with Asensio and Isco involved. With Ronaldo and Bale leading the line against Betis, Real were laboured.
Of course, Zidane will assume that the recent blip is temporary. But the old guard's success cannot guarantee immunity from the subs bench.
Ronaldo will be used more sparingly to protect his 32-year-old body. His Welsh colleague should expect to join him on the bench from time to time.
Forget the price tag and consider the form. Asensio simply looks a better option than Bale.