Gareth Bale Strikes Again as Tottenham Hotspur Climb to Third

Michael CummingsWorld Football Lead WriterFebruary 25, 2013

Not that long ago, the race for England's third and fourth Champions League places was a fight featuring three of the country's most compellingly flawed clubs. That's no longer quite the case.

After Gareth Bale's latest game-breaking bomb, the race for England's third and fourth Champions League places is now the Welshman's own on-the-job interview for the position of Britain's best player.

Chelsea and Arsenal can tag along too if they want, but the longer Bale keeps being Bale, the better Tottenham Hotspur's chances of either of their London rivals.

Bale scored two more goals, including an astonishing late winner, as Tottenham Hotspur edged West Ham United 3-2 in a thrilling London derby Monday night at West Ham's Upton Park.

Those two goals gave Bale 15 for the season, tied for the third-most in the Premier League so far this season. While two players have scored more goals this season, the consensus says no player can compare to Bale at the moment.

Since the start of 2013, no Premier League player has scored more goals than Bale's six (via Opta). Meanwhile, no player has meant more to his team.

In his last five league matches, the 23-year-old Welshman has scored the winner four times (via @STATS_Football). In his last 13 league starts, Bale has scored a dozen goals (via EPL Index). In 14 away matches, he has scored 11 times—more than any other player in the league (via Opta).

The statistics speak loudly, but numbers can only reveal so much. Bale's second strike Monday night, a howling Howitzer blast from a seemingly harmless distance, should fill in the rest.

On this night, it was enough to give Spurs a valuable win. On any night, it would have been worthy of three points.

"You'd think he'd run out of them, wouldn't you?" said West Ham manager Sam Allardyce (via Premier League). "There's not much you can do. We've been beaten by Gareth Bale."

Bale deferred credit to the team, claiming "it's not about me" (via BBC Sport) even while the rest of us respectfully disagreed. Cliche or not, his words hinted at something we've watched throughout the season.

For so long, Bale's appeal has been as much about hype as it was about end product. No more. As he has matured, Spurs have increased in stature.

Now third ahead of Chelsea, Tottenham seem the most stable and likeliest of bets in the three-pronged race for third and fourth place. One could even argue that the difference between Spurs and their hated rivals Arsenal this season has been the difference between Bale and his former club-mate Theo Walcott.

In fairness, though, that would only be harsh on Bale, who has been the best Premier League player of 2013 and is likely the best the British Isles currently have on offer.

The talk of Tottenham being a one-man team may or may not be fair, but Bale's prolonged brilliance presents a powerful argument for the solo route. Almost all of Spurs' current 11-match unbeaten run has coincided with Bale's return from a hamstring injury, and although others have made valuable contributions during that time, it's worth asking where the team would be without him.

With him, Spurs are surely Champions League shoo-ins. Once there, they might just have a chance of keeping him in spite of Real Madrid's rumored interest.

But that's a worry for another time. With Champions League qualification at stake and a North London Derby fast approaching, Tottenham have plenty to occupy them in the present.

Fortunately, Bale is also producing plenty to like.