Gareth Bale anointed a Real hero after Madrid's Copa del Rey win
Welshman has had his critics in Spain, but sublime cup winner has convinced all of his worth
Thursday 17 April 2014
For all that they embrace the worst excesses of modern football, every now and then Real Madrid do something completely old school – the 4am open-top bus ride through the city centre to deliver a recently won trophy to the Cibeles fountain is one of those times.
Straight from the game, and in the early hours of this morning, Gareth Bale was on that bus, and he was the player that everyone wanted to embrace on it, scarf around his neck, ticker-tape in the air, and the Copa del Rey on the top deck alongside him.
"I scored a similar goal for Wales when I ran off the pitch not too long ago. I was just trying to get round the player any way I could. I was off the pitch but I never took my eyes off the ball and thankfully it ended up in the back of the net. It was the biggest goal of my career," he said after what will be a career-defining moment.
Nothing will ever be the same for him again as the reaction demonstrated. "Too much Bale and not enough Messi" declared the Catalan press, while "Gareth Bolt" and "Usain Bale" ran two headlines in Marca, recording his 60-metre dash down the left at speeds of 27kmph (16.7 mph). "The grass on that wing will never grow back again" said Marca of the left flank that was burned up by Bale five minutes from time.
The wow factor was not restricted to reporters and supporters. "It was an incredible goal. I'm not sure I have ever seen one like it," said Carlo Ancelotti's number two, Paul Clement.
"When you see that he is two to three metres off the field in front of the Barça dugout, you never think it's going to end up with him putting the ball in the back of the net. It was just an amazing goal. It just shows what an incredible athlete he is to produce that kind of run so late in the game."
Bale's 19 goals prior to the final would have convinced everyone at any other club in the world, but among the most demanding supporters in football doubts remained about his ability to carry the team through a final without the injured Cristiano Ronaldo. "Internally, we never had any doubts," said Clement.
And Bale, it seems, also never lost the faith. "I'm never too worried about what people say. It is important for me to just concentrate on my game and put as little pressure on myself as I can," Bale said.
He grew up watching Real Madrid play in, and often lose, finals. He would have been a teenager when David Beckham played in the Copa del Rey final in his first season in 2004, scoring but finishing on the losing side.
"I have always watched Madrid and the reason I wanted to come here was to win all the trophies," said Bale. He will also manage something the former England captain never did if he can reach this season's Champions League final.
Bayern Munich's Barcelona-like high defensive line will be an inviting prospect for Bale – and for Ronaldo if the Portuguese can return in time for next Wednesday's semi-final first leg.
Clement said: "We have probably two of the best athletes in world football. We have got to get Ronaldo fit because we need him."
Bale added: "Bayern are a great team but we know we will have to work hard to beat them."
The Champions League was on the minds of many Madrid fans today and not just because they still have the chance of winning the club's first ever treble. "It reminded me of Zinedine Zidane's goal in Glasgow in the 2002 final, not because of its execution but because of what it meant," declared the Diario AS columnist Tomas Roncero of Bale's goal.
Zidane had been questioned that season but the goal silenced all doubters and there is a feeling that the same now applies to Bale. "He will run even faster from today onwards because he no longer has that huge price tag weighing heavy round his neck," said AS's chief football writer Juanma Trueba.
The Barcelona coach Gerardo Martino tried hard earlier in the season to rotate his squad and help his players avoid burnout. Marc Bartra, who equalised for Barcelona in the 2-1 defeat after Angel di Maria had given Real the lead, was fresh with only a handful of appearances behind him this season, but no amount of freshness would have enabled him to stop Bale.
"I had Bale under control in the first half but my hamstrings had tightened towards the end of the game and there was no way I could stay with him," said the defender.
Having seen Barcelona knocked out of the Champions League, lose the cup final and slip to third in La Liga in just seven days, Martino has also seen his big summer signing Neymar flatter to deceive.
Now the Brazilian will be missing for four weeks, having picked up a foot injury in the final. That will open the door for more willing runners such as Pedro and Alexis Sanchez, which should have a positive effect on Lionel Messi's form. In the first Clasico of the season, Bale was outplayed by Neymar. Few would have imagined he would outshine not just the Brazilian four months later, but Messi too.
"This was a big game for him. It was only his second final," said Clement. "But he has a great temperament. He keeps his cool in the big games; he doesn't show any nerves."
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