The Champions League group stages in recent years have become a tedious rumble of six games over three months so that - most of the time - the two biggest clubs in each group can qualify for the next round. But this season Gareth Bale has treated the Champions League group stages as if he were playing for Wales in a World Cup semi-final.
My moment of the year, for sheer, rip-roaring, up-and-at-them excitement is Bale's performance for Tottenham Hotspur against Internazionale in the home game at White Hart Lane on 2 November. I could have picked the second half of the game at San Siro when, after all, he scored a hat-trick in a 4-3 defeat were it not for the fact that there was something mesmerising about his performance in north London.
Every great performance requires talent, self-belief and determination - of which Bale had all. Great performances are also measured by the stature of the opponent who is overcome and in the Inter full-back Maicon there was no greater test for Bale. But this was not a full-back v winger duel in the tradition of Ashley Cole's against Cristiano Ronaldo at Euro 2004 or the World Cup two years later. In that case both gave as good as they got.
In Maicon's case the Brazilian, who had been voted in Uefa's Champions League team of the previous season, was taken apart piece-by-piece by Bale. And the more Bale picked the ball up and ran at him the worse it got for Maicon and the more compelling it became for those of us in the stadium.
Bale is a softly-spoken, shy Welshman who, when photographed this month on the Spurs' players Christmas night out, tried to hide behind one of his team-mates. That night against Inter, however, he showed his cruel, ruthless streak. It was not enough to go past Maicon once or twice, rather Bale seemed determined to pound him until you could imagine a towel being flung onto the pitch by Inter's staff.
Bale can run as quickly with the ball as most of his peers can run without it and although it is well within capabilities to get beyond a full-back he is also able to hit a cross on the run with just a yard of space. Either way he is a nightmare to play against. Two weeks earlier he had scored a hat-trick while supposedly under Maicon's guard at San Siro yet the White Hart Lane experience was even more humiliating.
Inter had been given fair warning about the danger of Bale but they seemed powerless to do anything about it. Lucio tried to remove him from the game with a crude two-footed lunge three minutes after extra-time but Bale saw it coming and got out the way. Later, on his way to making the third goal for Roman Pavlyuchenko, Bale left Lucio as motionless as the pre-match traffic on Tottenham High Road.
By the second half, the Spurs fans had hit upon a chant that will adorn t-shirts for years to come. "Taxi for Maicon" was a beauty because it encapsulated the moment perfectly. The crowd, while revelling in Bale's performance, also picked up on Maicon's embarrassment at his own helplessness. He wanted to be anywhere but on the right side of Inter's defence. But there was no figurative taxi. Rafael Benitez left him on to take his punishment.
Bale did not score that night but the way in which he laid on goals for Peter Crouch and Pavlyuchenko was thrilling. Whether it was Maicon - or in the case of the second goal, the substitute Obiora Nwankwo - whom he beat there was a certainty about the outcome that made him so exciting to watch.
For the third goal he picked up the ball close to the dugouts behind at White Hart Lane is the press box. For a moment as he left Lucio behind him those of us in the press benches got a brief up-close view of the power and pace of Bale in full flow with the roar of White Hart Lane urging him on.
For the England team, and English football in general, 2010 has not been a great year. For Bale it has been the opposite. Since breaking into the Spurs team in January his upward trajectory has been astonishing. Good performances have led to better performances and then, as in the case of Inter, he has put on some great performances.
It will not always be so. As Wayne Rooney discovered in 2010, form is that most elusive of qualities for elite footballers. So too Bale will find that it does not always come to him as easily as it did in his breakthrough year. One must resist the temptation to remark that it is a pity Bale is not English because he is a proud Welshman and will be a major concern for England in March at the Millennium Stadium. In a bad year he has been a shining light.Reuse content