The night started in disappointment, but ended with Madridistas wondering why they were ever disappointed in the first place. “Gareth Bale is available” confirmed Real Madrid manager Carlo Ancelotti in the build-up to his side’s Copa del Rey semi-final first leg clash against neighbours, and La Liga leaders, Atletico. Yet just hours before kick-off at the Bernabeu on Wednesday night the Welshman was, again, missing from the Italian’s squad.
More disappointment for the former Tottenham Hotspur man, who has endured a frustrating start to life in the Spanish capital, more disappointment for Ancelotti, more disappointment for a packed Bernabeu and more disappointment for club president Florentino Perez, a man desperate to see his record-breaking man play and perform.
Ancelotti confirmed in his post-match press conference that Bale was rested, and not risked, ahead of Saturday’s home match against Villarreal, in which Cristiano Ronaldo begins a three-game suspension for a straight red card in the 1-1 draw at Athletic Bilbao last weekend. The wing wizard has been missing through a groin injury, one of a number of niggles that have thwarted a prolonged run of starting appearances, but his absence hasn’t exactly been a disappointment for Real Madrid, not with an ever-improving youngster named Jese Rodriguez plugging the gap, a new Bernabeu favourite who starred again in his side’s 3-0 derby thumping.
Bale had been expected to start all week. Madrid-based sports daily Marca hyped up his return and Ancelotti did nothing to stem the story. If anything, he did the opposite. His return was thrived upon, too, given Madrid’s failure to pick up three points against Athletic on Sunday. More options ahead of the visit of Diego Simeone’s side, for once Madrid’s top team given league position and results over the past year. A return of the “BBC” - Bale, Benzema and Cristiano to lead the attack.
But who needs Bale when you have a hungry, intelligent and mature young player such as Jese shining on the big stage? Not just plugging the gap, but staking a big claim to be a tight fit for the gap week-in, week-out. The politics mean that when Bale is fully fit and when Ronaldo is not suspended, the “BBC” will continue, and Jese, the 20-year-old who was playing for Castilla, Madrid’s second team, in the Segunda Division last season, will likely return to the bench. Ancelotti has found a winning formula with 4-3-3 and those in the boardroom will not appreciate the big bucks of Bale being sat in the dugout.
The Las Palmas-born attacker scored once and played a key role in Madrid’s emphatic victory over their noisy neighbours from beside the Manzanares. His finish, Madrid’s second goal just before the hour mark, a neat little strike from a brilliant Angel Di Maria pass that went under the arms of Thibaut Courtois.
He almost returned the favour for his Portuguese teammate when he waltzed past the experienced Juanfran just before half-time and cut the ball back for Ronaldo only for the Atleti defence to scramble the ball dead. It was one of a number of penetrating raids into visiting territory, switching sides with his Portuguese teammate throughout the match and causing equal concern down either flank for Simeone and his men.
Jese doesn’t just have raw talent to throw at opponents. While he showed some signs of understandable naivety in his early outings in Madrid’s first team, his growth has been fast, playing with an old head on young shoulders and fitting seamlessly into a demanding squad of players. His development into Real Madrid has been natural and that’s one of the reasons he’s a big hit with the Bernabeu. He may be from the Canary Islands, but coming through Castilla he’s seen as Madrid through-and-through. He’s one of their own.
There was hope before the turn of the year but since the return of La Liga after the winter break Jese has been one of Madrid’s star performers alongside Luka Modric, a rejuvenated Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo. The derby goal was his sixth of the season, with three coming in the cup - the other two came in victories over Osasuna and Espanyol. Although Bale’s big-money arrival caused obvious excitement, most would be happy to see Jese continue in Los Blancos’ three-pronged attack such is his current form. There would certainly be no qualms or worries about Bale taking extra time off to make sure he returns at 100 per cent.
His work ethic and performance epitomised Madrid’s night as a whole against Atleti. A 3-0 victory was deserved and, although goals from Pepe and Di Maria took big deflections to wrong-foot Courtois, the result could have been more. At times it verged on the ugly, almost a throwback to the Mourinho-Guardiola days, but it never really boiled over. It was a thrilling, end-to-end, high energy derby.
At the back, Sergio Ramos and Pepe did a job on Diego Costa, who had scored in the last two derby successes for Los Colchoneros, even if that job was edging along the lines of the rulebook, while Alvaro Arbeloa and Fabio Coentrao offered a more defensive approach to that of Dani Carvajal and Marcelo, respectively. When Atleti beat the last line, Modric was well positioned to produce a brilliant clearance off the line to deny Godin. In attack, led by Jese, Madrid pressed and harried. The visitors were shell-shocked, they did not know what hit them.
They say revenge is a dish best served cold and Los Blancos served a three-course feast after the embarrassment of losing last season’s cup final to Atleti on home soil. A 1-0 league loss followed in September and Atleti took top-spot in La Liga for the first time since 1996 at the weekend thanks to a 4-0 victory over Real Sociedad. Expectations were high at the Calderon but those at the Bernabeu were keen to restore the hierarchy in the Spanish capital.
It was job done. Atleti had not conceded three goals in a match all season coming into the contest but Madrid managed it. They managed a clean sheet, too, vital with away goals counting and vital in keeping Iker Casillas’s long-standing unbeaten run against Atleti in tact - Diego Lopez was in goal for previous two defeats and Casillas has not suffered a derby defeat in his 15 years in goal.
The only sour point of a thrilling night came 15 minutes after the end of the match. The 600 or so visiting fans high up in the top tier of the stadium who were kept behind for security measures decided to take their frustrations out on Real left-back Marcelo, making racist gestures and singing a racially insulting song to the Brazilian en masse while he was warming down. A problem that needs to be addressed by the Spanish football association.
El Clasico has been, and probably always will be, the No.1 match in La Liga, but the Madrid derby is starting to really matter again. Both sides showed that on Wednesday night and it’s just a shame the tie as a contest looks as good as over ahead of next week’s return leg at the Calderon. That won’t be the end of the derby duel, however, with Atleti hosting their rivals again at the start of the match in what’s set to be a crunch league match. Bale and Jese will get the chance to play together in the next three league matches while Ronaldo serves his ban and it’ll be interested to see who comes out on top.