"If you have a Ferrari and I have a Volvo, you will beat me in a sprint," said then Inter boss Rafa Benitez after seeing Gareth Bale help Tottenham to a 3-1 win at White Hart Lane in November 2010. "A Volvo is a good car, but a Ferrari is faster." While his critics may enjoy the image of Bale as a Prancing Horse, in truth, Spurs' star man has developed into a thoroughbred over the past three years. The fear of losing him must be great.
Bale may be the Ferrari at Tottenham, but Andre Villas-Boas will prefer to view him as part of the machine. Even so, if the summer acquisition of Paulinho represents the fine upholstery and Emmanuel Adebayor is the furry dice, the Spurs boss will be acutely aware that without the engine, his team's hopes will stall. And that would be cruel on Villas-Boas as he's been a careful owner.
In fact, it was arguably Villas-Boas who truly empowered Bale, propelling him on this path to success in a move that has proven mutually beneficial. Harry Redknapp began the conversion from left-back to left-wing but endured those chants imploring Bale to stay on the flank when he attempted to develop things further. Last season, the next big leap in Bale's game happened as he more than doubled his Premier League goal tally to 19. This was far more than just a winger now.
Far from being bailed out by his prized asset, Villas-Boas has facilitated that development in Bale's game. As the Welshman noted in Sport: "With Andre, there's a certain shape and a style we play. I think Harry was more free and let you do what you want. Andre does that too, but there's a lot more tactical work. I think it's something that's good to learn."
It is not a mere accident that Bale has been getting into those areas under the Portuguese coach. "He has been prolific in front of goal," said Villas-Boas. "And I think he's enjoying getting into those positions." The conversion to centre stage has been slightly more convoluted than fellow one-time wingers Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi but the prospect of Bale playing where he wants is no longer seen as an indulgence. Like the greats of the game, he doesn't so much take part in a football match, he takes over. What's best for Bale has become what's best for Tottenham.
However, it the small matter of what's best for both parties this summer that is the question now. For Bale, it is patently obvious that the UEFA Champions League is the stage he deserves. And yet, the decision to leave home comforts for a life abroad is a big one. Leaving a Spurs team built to allow him to prosper in favour of an adventure at Real Madrid presents difficulties - namely, fitting in around Ronaldo or face the daunting prospect of replacing him.
For Villas-Boas, there is the concern that dragging the saga out might not make a happy conclusion any more likely. Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy has a well-documented penchant for stringing things out until the leaves are saying their farewells to the trees and that presents problems for a manager. The windfall will be significant but might it come too late for Villas-Boas?
At least he has already got to work on tweaking the squad. Nacer Chadli has come in from Twente and the 23-year-old Belgium international is capable of playing on the left or in the centre, while Andros Townsend might provide additional thrust in attacking midfield after impressing on loan at Queens Park Rangers last term.
Perhaps more significantly, the arrival of Brazil international Paulinho presents the intriguing possibility of forming a triumvirate with Sandro and Mousa Dembele that gives Spurs a platform to dominate from midfield. Valencia striker Roberto Soldado also remains a target after the lengthy courtship of Leandro Damiao looks to have come to nothing. "It's not a lie to anybody that we've been looking for a striker to strengthen our squad and to have more strength in depth," said Villas-Boas earlier this week.
As a result, as unlikely as it may seem to anyone who witnessed Bale's heroics last season, 2013/14 could be the campaign in which the 24-year-old goes up yet another level. Improvements behind him and ahead of him could create an environment to thrive in and, with changes at management level elsewhere, there are top-four possibilities for Tottenham this season.
Whether all this will be enough to keep Bale at White Hart Lane remains to be seen. He could succeed elsewhere, while Villas-Boas is capable of finding solutions without his star man. But after a season in which the two men worked together to engineer some special performances, it just wouldn't be the same. For player or manager.