Cristiano Ronaldo was one of the first out of El Madrigal on Saturday night, walking down the corridors of the little stadium and on to the coach parked in the narrow street outside around midnight. He was wearing the famous person’s expression of determined non-engagement until he recognised a familiar face from the Manchester football reporting fraternity waiting on the other side of the rope.
“How are you, mate?” said Ronaldo, wandering over to shake hands. And then, as he turned away he shouted over his shoulder, “Don’t worry! Bale is coming!”, and winked extravagantly as befits a man who has 203 goals in 203 games for Real Madrid and has just signed a new five-year contract worth £76m. With his sidekick Pepe trailing eagerly after him, he was gone.
Gareth Bale was indeed soon out but he was wearing that fearful expression and, having just scored on his Madrid debut in a 2-2 draw with Villarreal, could not even muster a word to the lines of cameras and reporters. There seemed some confusion as to who had made that decision – Bale or the club – but the Real attitude was spelt out by one of their many anxious-looking minions. “Look, the problem is we didn’t win,” he said.
In a two-horse race, that is the issue facing Madrid, who are now fourth after four games. They have only dropped two points but when you have a starting XI that, on Saturday, cost £324m and you are up against a newly promoted side there can be no excuses. Especially when Barcelona – four wins out of four so far – are capable of knocking over opponents as remorselessly as they have done in this golden era of theirs.
What Bale learnt on Saturday night was that, although the big two in Spain have strangled the life out of the competition from a financial point of view, there are pockets of resistance. Villarreal were magnificent and, were it not for the Real goalkeeper Diego Lopez, might have won, although even he might have done better with Giovani dos Santos’s goal, the second for the home side. Bale scored the equaliser and Ronaldo the second after the break. Ruben Cani opened the scoring.
As for Bale’s first few days at Madrid, explaining that fell to Paul Clement, the former PE teacher who became Carlo Ancelotti’s assistant at Chelsea and moved with him to Paris Saint-Germain, where he helped David Beckham to integrate, then Real.
“It’s a similar scenario,” Clement said. “I had a really good relationship with David, mostly because we were two Englishmen in Paris, and he could always lean on me if he needed to. He did, at times, and I think having someone else around who spoke the same language helped him settle in France.
“It’s an outlet sometimes, a bit of relief when you’re still trying to get to grips with the language, and we’ve kept in touch. We have that good relationship still. Gareth and I can develop the same kind of professional relationship here and help each other. I guess I’d been in France a while by the time David arrived, but it will be the same here. I know how Carlo works, having been alongside him for a while now, and if I can pass on anything to Gareth to make him feel more at home then great.”
On Saturday night, Bale started on the right but switched with Ronaldo at the mid-point of the first half and it was coming from that flank that he scored his goal. He got a decisive foot on Daniel Carvajal’s cross from the right six minutes from half-time. From a scorer of beautiful goals in the last three seasons, this was nothing of the sort but it gave him a solid platform upon which to build. He was substituted before the hour.
He will need that stability in the challenges that lie ahead. The cycle of games resumes with Galatasaray in the Champions League in Istanbul tomorrow and then, potentially, Bale’s Bernabeu debut against Getafe on Sunday.
Clement said: “He’s got a lot of support. This is a big club. One of the first things I noticed when I came here is how different it is to Paris Saint-Germain. There we were in the early stages of restructuring, while here it’s a very well established club, a club who have become used to foreign coaches and foreign players for many, many years.
“So everything’s in place to give them that support and make that transition very easy. Gareth has his own people here and support staff at the club as well who can help him settle in as quickly as possible.”
It seems that the question for Madrid is how quickly they can get Bale back to his potent best without affecting the momentum that the team have to build in the league if they are to keep pace with Barcelona. The Welshman was not the only one who looked like he will need to adapt: the midfielder Asier Illarramendi, who was signed from Real Sociedad in the summer, was substituted at the same time as Bale and also off the pace at times. There is no hiding place at Madrid.
“You do feel the history of the place,” Clement said. “You feel the expectation, too, and you’re not allowed to forget the size of the place. I got that from the first time I came here with Carlo to sign the contract, and it dawns on you then just what you’re buying into. It’s a fantastic club to work for. The strange thing is that all the steps I’ve made, personally, in my career – whether that is going to Chelsea, going to Paris or coming here – it very quickly becomes the norm.
“When you’re on the inside, it’s a football team with normal guys, normal training, preparing for games as you would anywhere. The difference is what’s happening outside that bubble: the outside interest, the expectation, whether that’s the media or the fans worldwide. That’s what takes time to accept and understand. Getting down to the normal, everyday work can feel like a bit of a relief, and Gareth will feel that now, just as I did.”
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