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Gareth Bale back on transfer watch after trip to London

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Gareth Bale's future is once again in doubt. The Welsh winger traveled to London with the permission of Real Madrid to see his agent this week, reigniting speculation about a possible departure after coach Zinedine Zidane said in July it would best for the player and the club to part ways.

Zidane has since backtracked and said Bale is an important player for him, but the damage was done to the public image of their relationship. Bale was in the British capital on Tuesday and Spanish television broadcaster Cuatro filmed him arriving to see his agent, Jonathan Barnett. Barnett told Cuatro that their meeting was "private."

When asked if Bale was happy at Madrid, Barnett said: "Ecstatic." Bale did not answer questions from journalists at the airport. Bale has missed three matches with a left calf injury he picked up in a European Championship qualifier with Wales more than two weeks ago. Zidane did not include Bale in his lineup for Wednesday's 5-0 win over Leganés.

Zidane also dropped the Welshman him from his squad for two matches before he was injured. Otherwise, he has scored two goals — both in a 2-2 draw with Villarreal — in seven appearances this season. "A lot of things are said and we think that Bale is a player who is here, who puts in a lot of effort and trains well," Zidane said Tuesday. "He's important for this squad and for the club. When he's not available, he's not available because he's got something and that's it."

Zidane said Bale had not told him why he needed to go to London and had received permission to do so directly from the club. "He's never talked about leaving," Zidane said. "He stayed in the summer and it's better for everyone. He's here and he's happy to be here. It's impossible to lose the desire. I don't think about offers coming in."

Those words of support contrast with Zidane's statements during the offseason when he said the club was close to transferring Bale and that it would be "the best for everyone." That move never materialized. There were rumors of a Chinese club willing to match or improve his annual salary of 15 million euros ($16.6 million). The other clubs, particularly the richest English teams, were considered the most likely candidates to offer a new destination for Bale.

Madrid paid a then world-record 100 million euros (then $132 million) for Bale to pry him from Tottenham in 2013. He has delivered some amazing goals on the biggest stages. He romped down the field to score the late winner against Barcelona in the 2014 Copa del Rey, and his stunning bicycle kick for the first of his two goals in the 2018 Champions League final victory over Liverpool is one Madrid's faithful will never forget.

Otherwise, his stint at Madrid has been plagued by nagging injuries and many fans have lost patience with his regularly uninspired performances. Bale had his opportunity to claim the status as Madrid's leader when Cristiano Ronaldo left for Juventus. Instead, he and the rest of his teammates have failed to replace the Portugal forward's missing goals.

Now, following his London excursion, the pressure is back on Bale and Madrid to clarify their plans with the transfer window opening in two months.

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