On Tuesday evening at San Siro, when Harry Redknapp addressed a gathering of journalists ahead of Tottenham's Champions League game there the following night, there was a preoccupation among the Italians present that Gareth Bale – a name they all knew – could potentially be exchanged for Sulley Muntari.
There would be money involved too from Internazionale's side but the stories that had run in Italy in the summer had suggested that it would not be too much. Bale was still one for the future and Muntari was, as a former Redknapp favourite, a player of value. By the end of the game on Wednesday evening, no one was talking any longer about an exchange between Bale and Muntari.
A second half hat-trick from the shy lad from Cardiff who, until recently had worn a hairclip to hold back the floppy fringe he used to have, had seen to that. Inter are justifiably proud of their two bright youngsters, Philippe Coutinho from Brazil and the France Under-21 player Jonathan Biabiany, but Bale had stolen the show. The 21-year-old had arrived in style. Another five minutes and he might even have pulled the game back to 4-4 for Spurs.
Even Rafael Benitez, who rarely praises his own players let alone the opposition's, acknowledged the performance of Bale. "He is a good player, we know that," Benitez said. Redknapp rehearsed that familiar speech about Bale being part of Spurs' future and how it would send out the wrong signal to sell him. Bale's reputation was made all over Europe on Wednesday night.
The goalkeeper Heurelho Gomes, sent off before Spurs conceded the second of four first-half Inter goals, had reason to be thankful that Bale had deflected attention from the first half. He said that Bale could get into the Brazil team in his current form. "Yes, I think so," Gomes said. "Gareth is on fire, a great player and he showed it again. The team as a whole showed lots of character to come back from 4-0. But Gareth scored three unbelievable goals."
As bad as Wayne Rooney's 2010 has been, Bale's has been miraculous. It is hard to believe that at Christmas last season there were plans to send him out on loan to Nottingham Forest. He was given a start in place of the injured Benoit Assou-Ekotto in the FA Cup against Peterborough on 2 January and never looked back.
Bale remains, in many respects, the shy teenager whom Spurs signed from Southampton more than three years ago. Asked whether he realised the effect his Champions League hat-trick would have on the demand for him among top clubs in Europe, he was cautious. "I don't know about that," he said. "I'm just happy here at Tottenham and I am learning. I'm just happy playing here, week in, week out, and I am learning my football here. I just want to keep on playing.
"I try not to take too much notice [of the attention], it's best not to. I try to keep my feet on the ground, and learn during the week in training and during the games at the weekend, and long may I continue to do that."
Bale signed a new four-year deal in May and although Daniel Levy, the Spurs chairman, will probably offer him improved terms at the end of this season – in exchange for a longer contract – you have to wonder whether Bale will sign. The smart money would be on him doing this season and one more at White Hart Lane before the clamour becomes irresistible and Levy decides to cash in on a remarkable asset.
Watching from the stands on Wednesday were Bale's parents Frank, a retired school caretaker, and Debbie who follow their son everywhere. They still live in Cardiff, while Bale is based, like so many of the Spurs squad, in Essex which makes for a Gavin & Stacey-style travel schedule. Bale is regarded as very much a family-orientated individual – it is often towards his parents' seats at White Hart Lane that he runs to celebrate when he scores.
"You have to give it to Gareth Bale, he was fantastic," Peter Crouch said on Wednesday night. "Gareth has been magnificent for two years. To score a hat-trick here at the top level at the San Siro, from the wing, is fantastic. I'm sure a lot of people will be looking at him but..."
There seems little chance of Bale leaving Spurs in the near future although at some point he will have to make a decision. He has already rejected Manchester United once when he joined Spurs because he thought he had a better chance of getting first-team football at White Hart Lane. The fact that he plays international football for Wales rather than England could protect him from the more intensive scrutiny that has been focused on the likes of David Beckham and Wayne Rooney over the years.
It really is among that class of player that Bale belongs. By the end of the game on Wednesday, and with the score back to 4-3, Spurs' dreadful defensive failings of the first half did not feel quite so painful to the travelling support as they had at half-time. Perhaps most remarkable was that Bale's goals came towards the end of a gruelling game for Spurs which they had played with only 10 men for all but 10 minutes.
As well as power, technique and speed, Bale has astonishing stamina as the likes of Maicon and Walter Samuel discovered when he surged past them in the closing stages. And with six goals this season he also has a goalscoring touch. "His finishing is deadly," Alan Hutton said. "You might expect it from a natural goalscorer like Jermain Defoe but Gareth has that in his locker. He has that magic touch for goals. The sky is the limit for him."
Spurs owe a debt of gratitude to their former director of football Damien Comolli, who signed Bale. They have the best young talent in Britain – possibly even in Europe – on their books and in a week when Rooney has demonstrated how difficult to manage that kind of talent can be, Bale shows all the signs of being the real deal on and off the pitch.
Champions League half-term report: How the British sides are shaping up at the halfway stage in the groups
FC Twente 3/0/2/1/4/7/2
Werder Bremen 3/0/2/1/3/7/2
Results so far Werder Bremen (a) drew 2-2, FC Twente (h) won 4-1, Internazionale (a) lost 4-3.
Remaining fixtures 2 Nov Inter (h), 24 Nov W Bremen (h), 7 Dec FC Twente (a).
After waiting 48 years for a return to European Cup action, the majority of Spurs supporters remain delighted just to be keeping such exalted company, although Harry Redknapp's side have shown, in flashes, that they can compete with the continent's finest. The club's defensive record remains a worry, with seven goals conceded, although Gareth Bale's rescue act saved face at San Siro this week. With two of their remaining games at home, Spurs are sitting pretty.
Manchester Utd 3/2/1/0/2/0/7
Results so far Rangers (h) drew 0-0, Valencia (a) won 1-0, Bursaspor (h) won 1-0.
Remaining fixtures 2 Nov Bursaspor (a), 24 Nov Rangers (a), 7 Dec Valencia (h).
United are well set to make the knockout stages for a 15th time in 16 years. Yet to concede, they are struggling at the other end, scoring just twice in three games – something the Wayne Rooney "situation" won't help. The victory in Valencia has probably won them the group, although hopes for the knockout stages are not as high as they were.
Results so far Manchester United (a) drew 0-0, Bursaspor (h) won 1-0, Valencia (h) Drew 1-1.
Remaining fixtures 2 Nov Valencia (a), 24 Nov Man Utd (h), 7 Dec Bursaspor (a).
After taking just two points in last season's group stages virtually anything was an improvement. Gained a first European win in two years against Bursaspor but the result of next month's trip to Valencia will go a long way to determing their fate.
Spartak Moscow 3/2/0/1/4/2/6
MSK Zilina 3/0/0/3/1/8/0
Results so far MSK Zilina (a) won 4-1, Marseilles (h) won 2-0, Spartak Moscow (a) won 2-0.
Remaining fixtures 3 Nov Spartak Moscow (h), 23 Nov MSK Zilina (h), 8 Dec Marseilles (a).
Carlo Ancelotti's title favourites have arguably been the most impressive of the British teams thus far, winning three from three with minimum fuss. Comfortable victories in Slovakia and Russia sandwiched a stroll against Marseilles, all achieved without the suspended/injured Didier Drogba and in the midst of a relative injury crisis. The Blues remain among the favourites to reach Wembley for a second final in four seasons.
Shakhtar Donetsk 3/2/0/1/5/5/6
Partizan Belgrade 3/0/0/3/1/6/0
Results so far Braga (h) won 6-0, Partizan Belgrade (a) won 3-1, Shaktar Donetsk (h) won 5-1.
Remaining fixtures 3 Nov Shakhtar Donetsk (a), 23 Nov Braga (a), 8 Dec Partizan Belgrade (h).
As expected, Arsène Wenger's youngsters are coasting through to the last 16 following their favourable draw. The Gunners experienced slight difficulty in Belgrade last month before prevailing in the end and have scored 14 goals – a record for this stage of the competition. Victory in Donetsk on Wednesday week would seal qualification and give Wenger further hope that his five-year wait for a trophy could be nearing an end.
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