Could Gareth Bale return to Real Madrid sooner than expected?

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Just Saturday, Real Madrid boss Zinedine Zidane said he didn’t expect Gareth Bale back until the beginning of March.

The Welshman has been out since late November after undergoing surgery to repair torn ankle ligaments. Today, the club made it clear that Bale had returned to training, raising heads and sparking chatter that maybe he could return sooner than anticipated.

When speaking earlier, Zidane had targeted Madrid’s return leg of their Champions League matchup with Napoli on March 7 as his ideal return. “I hope that Bale is back with us before the return leg against Napoli,” Zidane said. “He still has to return to team training, which is the most important thing.”

Well, he’s done that less than 24 hours later.

Now, it appears the La Liga leaders could potentially have their man back before that. The ambitious goal would now be Wednesday’s first leg at home against Napoli, but having been out for so long, it’s unlikely he would be match fit that quickly. Madrid has a home meeting with Espanyol next weekend and a visit to Valencia in 10 days that he could look towards, plus two more league games against Villareal and Las Palmas before the visit to Naples.

Madrid has for the most part not missed a beat with Bale out, losing just the one league match against Sevilla, although they were eliminated from the Copa del Rey quarterfinals in late January. Zidane has deployed a number of different formations in Bale’s absence, with Marco Acensio seeing time on the wing, or playing Isco in the lone creative attacking role with Casemiro and Modric behind him. Through it all, Zidane has played Cristiano Ronaldo up top with Karim Benzema in a two-striker attack, and it will be interesting to see if Madrid sticks with that and slots Bale in opposite a wide Isco or Lucas Vasquez, or if Ronaldo moves back to a wider inside-forward role.

All this will please Wales boss Chris Coleman, who will now almost surely see Bale fit for the late March international break for a World Cup qualifier against the Republic of Ireland.