April 16, 2014. 85th minute of a rather strange Clasico – Barcelona vs Real Madrid for the uninitiated. It was the final of the Copa del Rey and was being played at the Mestalla in Valencia, Spain. It was a strange match because this was one of those rare occassions in which Real had marginally more possession of the ball than Barcelona. They were, in fact, the better team for a good part of the match despite the fact they decided to rest Cristiano Ronaldo, who was present in the stands. But then Real were pegged back after Marc Bartra scored the equaliser for Barca.
Enter Gareth Bale. Fabio Coentrao laid the ball off for the Welshman as Real broke from within their half. With Bartra closing him down, Bale passed the ball into empty space. Bartra nudged him outside the field of play and thus had lesser ground to cover to get to the ball. What he didn’t have, though, were the feet of the man he just pushed off and before he knew it, Bale overtook him and got to the ball first. One touch to cut inside, a second to keep it away from Bartra, a couple more to keep the ball at his feet and a final one to put it past Barcelona goalkeeper Jose Manuel Pinto. Barcelona never got back from that.
That goal was seen as a baptism of sorts for Bale. He had seemingly shaken off all that was hanging heavily on his shoulders – the price tag and the Cristiano Ronaldo comparisons for most part. The plaudits flew in from everywhere. There was Real boss Carlo Ancelotti saying how “lucky” Real are that he plays for them, there was teammate Xabi Alonso saying he hadn’t “seen anything like it.” Barcelona manager Gerardo Martino, by that time a beleaguered figure in the Nou Camp, said it was “difficult to see a player sprint like that at that stage of the game.” A month later, Bale scored the winner in the Champions League final and he was finally accepted by the Madrid faithful as one of their own.
Bale continued in similar vein the next season, eventually becoming the highest scoring British player in La Liga history. He also had an extraordinary international season in which he led Wales to the Euro 2016 semi-final. In fact, at the start of the new season, with Ronaldo dealing with injury problems of his own, Bale was in blazing form and became the fulcrum of Real’s attack. Then came an ankle tendon injury in a Champions League match against Sporting Lisbon, the 15th knock he had suffered in his time in Madrid. He hasn’t regained full fitness since then, something that the man himself admitted.
He was absent for most of the campaign after that. He returned in another match against Barcelona earlier in the year and limped off yet again, to return only as a subsitute in Real’s victorious Champions League final against Juventus. What was more poignant was that Real never seemed to miss him. Isco emerged as a key first team member alongwith young Marco Asensio.
To call Bale a failure at Madrid would be an exaggeration. He was crucial to the Spanish giants’ run to the Champions League title in his debut season and has scored 56 goals so far, a good return for a player who is not shy of dropping back and defending when the situation demands and the number of times he has scored coming off the bench. But the fans at Real Madrid are an impatient lot. They have booed club legend Iker Casillas and even Cristiano Ronaldo on occasion. Bale is no different. Fans have been unrelenting on the the Welshman in recent times. That could change, though, if he manages to put in a good shift in the upcoming El Clasico. He did score the pivotal goal at the FIFA Club World Cup which took Real Madrid into the final. And there are few better ways to remind a disgruntled fan base of his brilliance than a good performance against Barcelona.
Real have endured a rather erratic start to the season. Ronaldo has not quite hit the ground running and the Spanish and European champions are fourth, 11 points behind the table toppers Barcelona. A fully fit and in-form Bale could be something that they could use at the moment because, when all is fine with him, the Welsh star is nearly unplayable, as Marc Bartra can attest.