Tottenham boss Jose Mourinho says he hopes Gareth Bale can reach a "better level" soon, after the Welsh forward continued a stuttering start to his second stint with the club.
Bale was substituted shortly before the hour-mark as Spurs produced a disappointing display to lose 1-0 to Royal Antwerp in the Europa League on Thursday.
Since returning to the club on loan from Real Madrid in September, seven years after departing White Hart Lane for La Liga, recovery from a knee injury has limited Bale to just three appearances.
The 31-year-old came on as a substitute as Spurs blew a 3-0 lead to draw 3-3 with West Ham, and was an unused substitute in their 1-0 victory over Burnley on Monday.
Mourinho had said in the build-up to the Antwerp game that he thought Bale was "arriving" at his best form, but a tame individual display raised doubts over the four-time Champions League winner's ability to break into Spurs' in-form front line.
"Seven years is a long, long, long gap, so which player in the world is the same as he was seven years ago? Sometimes they are not better or worse, they are just different players," Mourinho said.
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"You look for example to Ronaldo and Messi and compare them with seven years ago. They play in different areas, they play in different positions. They transform their qualities to try to export their qualities in other responsibilities on the tactical system of their teams. I think it happens with the majority of the players. So for sure he is a different player.
"Every word that I told on Wednesday, I believe in them, because he's working very, very hard, he's improving, he doesn't have one single injury since he recovered from the last one. He didn't miss one single minute of any training session. To play 90 minutes is still hard, to play high intensity is still difficult, but he's improving and hopefully he'll be back to a better level soon."
Mourinho showed no mercy to Spurs' fringe players following the defeat in Belgium, insisting that they had given him "easy choices" to select his team for Sunday's visit of Brighton.
However, there remains hope for Dele Alli, Steven Bergwijn, Carlos Vinicius and Giovani Lo Celso, who were all substituted at half-time in Belgium, with the in-form Tanguy Ndombele having faced similar treatment last season.
Ndombele, who came in for heavy criticism from Mourinho during the previous campaign, has established himself as a key player for Spurs, with the Portuguese bemoaning his absence from Thursday's defeat.
"Tanguy felt just a little sign of fatigue in a muscular area, and he was always protected, but normally tomorrow (Friday) he's training and ready to play Sunday," Mourinho said.
"And to be honest we missed him, because he gives speed to the team, thinking quick, thinking fast, moving the ball quick and fast. We miss him."