Gareth Bale value for money? You bet
After a sticky start at Real, Welshman leads the assists chart and is a guaranteed starter in Sunday's El Clasico. Pete Jenson in Madrid explains how he turned it around
Friday 21 March 2014
Generosity is usually in short supply among Real Madrid forwards. The competition is fierce, the opportunities can be fleeting, and the level of analysis often goes no further than the "goals scored" column so unselfishness gets you nowhere.
But as Gareth Bale goes into his first home Clasico on Sunday, it is his 17 assists – more than any other La Liga player – that have Real Madrid supporters believing he might just have been worth the world record fee.
He was at it again in midweek when he played a part in all three of Real Madrid's second-leg goals against Schalke in the Champions League. The last assist was particularly telling, rolling the ball across the face of the goal to young team-mate Alvaro Morata who was so desperate to score he had snatched at an earlier gift from Bale and blazed it wildly wide.
"Big boots just keep on giving," wrote one Spanish commentator after one of Bale's size 10s had dropped a 30-yard diagonal pass on to Cristiano Ronaldo's toe to produce the only goal of the last league game against Malaga that takes Madrid into this game four points clear of Barcelona.
They were six points behind them when the whistle was blown on the first Clasico of the season and Bale's outlook was far bleaker. Bale was taken off after 60 minutes having spent the game peppering the stands with wayward shots, falling over and picking up a caution.
Neymar had scored in that 2-1 win, back when the world believed he had cost Barcelona just £48.6m – making the £86m outlay for Bale look like a misguided indulgence.
Neymar has been pictured at Euro Disney this week with his Brazil team-mate Thiago Silva. He had been given time off as Barcelona enjoyed a seven-day break without a midweek game. He also had last Sunday off when Barcelona won 7-0 with him watching from the bench. Now coach Tata Martino is under pressure not to start him on Sunday.
As his price has risen his impact on the pitch has declined. An investigation into his transfer has uncovered various add-on contracts that take his price close to Bale's and with Alexis Sanchez, Pedro and Lionel Messi scoring 49 goals between them – only three fewer than Madrid's BBC of Bale, Benzema and Cristiano – Martino will upset supporters if he breaks up the trio to recall the Brazilian on Sunday.
Meanwhile, Bale has slowly but surely turned things around at Real. Despite the setback of a smattering of boos greeting a misplaced pass in January at the Bernabeu he has won fans, manager and team-mates over. He has settled in Madrid, having moved into a luxury complex La Finca where many of the other Real players live including Ronaldo. And he's always been ready to lavish praise on Ronaldo and play the role of the Portuguese's wingman. "I'm learning from the best," he says.
But it is the goals and assists that have really helped and Carlo Ancelotti has already admitted he knows his strongest team and Bale will be part of it on Sunday. Having played all but 17 minutes in the last nine games and put behind him that midwinter period when his participation dropped below 50 per cent in terms of minutes played, he has put together the kind of run that those who know him well always believed he would.
Bale's former Wales manager John Toshack told the Spanish newspaper Marca this week: "He's a Rolls Royce of a player and he needs to be just right to play well. He had several serious injuries when he was a very young player. The first one ruled him out for 10 months and the second for nine. That is a long time to be out between the age of 18 and 20. The treatment he had was not always the best and that is why he needs to be 100 per cent and can't be one of these players who can play through injury."
The pressures of arriving when the season had started and missing pre-season with his new team-mates will only have been increased by his price tag according to former Real Madrid player, and current Olympiakos coach, Michel.
"His problem was always going to be his price tag. It's impossible that it doesn't weigh heavy. The first person who will think 'I'm probably not worth €100m' is the player himself," Michel says.
"It's not the player's fault, it's the market's fault. And the fact that he doesn't understand Spanish will not save him because you can smell the doubts. I'm certain he will be aware of people questioning the price. The spotlight is on him and at a club like Madrid it is not just the external spotlight but the internal one that you have to deal with."
The idea that there were players in the dressing room questioning what the club had seen in a player who had missed as many minutes as he had played is backed up by sources who say team-mates wondered at the reels of blue tape used to protect him from further pulls and strains.
Bale's room – No 126 – in Real Madrid's private hotel inside the club's Valdebebas training complex is the closest to the phsyio's room, just across the hall.
But injuries have not written the script of his first season. Assists have instead. That and his 14 goals – more than any Brit has managed in their first season in Spain.
Ronaldo has raced to 240 goals for Real Madrid – as many as Ferenc Puskas managed in his career in Spain. And Messi is on goal No 371 for Barcelona.
Bale always knew they would be impossible to upstage but he has left Neymar – the player Real Madrid lost to Barcelona – and Mesut Özil – the player Real Madrid sold to Arsenal – in his wake in the three players' first seasons at their new clubs.
"No one can say that Bale doesn't deserve to be in the team on his own merit because his numbers speak for themselves," says Michel.
"The first year is difficult at any club and more so at Madrid," adds Toshack. "I laugh when people doubt him. You only had to see him [over] the last two seasons to know what he is capable of. And people should be prepared for next season because the best is yet to come."
Bale in Spain: Welshman's season
After joining Real Madrid, Bale made an immediate impact, scoring on his La Liga debut in a 2-2 draw away at Villarreal.
Welshman then endured a dry patch, failing to find the net in his next five games, including Real's 2-1 league defeat at Barcelona in October. Cristiano Ronaldo, meanwhile, scored six goals in this period.
Returned to scoring form with a double in Real's 7-3 home league win over Seville on 30 October, a match which showed their attacking prowess, as Ronaldo struck a hat-trick and Karim Benzema scored twice.
November scoring run
Struck six goals in November. He scored in three consecutive matches – including a league hat-trick against Valladolid.
Bale has scored 10 La Liga goals and found the net four times in the Champions League. He has the most assists of any La Liga player with 17 in all competitions.
Far cry from winless Spurs...
At the start of his Tottenham career, Spurs struggled – they went 24 league games without a victory while he was playing.
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