At some point soon, maybe even this month, Gareth Bale’s remarkable run of form will end. He will fail to win a game single-handedly, not rescuing his teammates with comic-book brilliance and timing. He will leave jaws un-dropped and hearts in chests. He may even see someone else score for Spurs.
But against Lyon, as for the last few games, Bale was the only man that mattered, the only game in town. For the fourth consecutive match he was Tottenham’s only goal-scorer, scoring the fifth and sixth wonderful decisive goals of this astonishing run. And, of those four games, this was his best performance yet.
Somehow Bale managed in this Europa League last 32 first-leg tie to make his contributions against Norwich City, West Bromwich Albion and Newcastle United, or even his Boxing Day hat-trick at Villa Park, look like barely-significant cameos. This was his most exciting and dramatic performance yet.
Bale scored two astounding free-kicks, the first with the last kick of the first-half, the second with the last kick of the second. The rest of his team-mates were well-matched by Lyon but Bale seemed like a different type of footballer from everyone else on the pitch. The Europa League is a competition for the merely good. Bale, though, must be the third most thrilling footballer in the world in 2013.
“He’s going through a great individual moment,” said his coach Andre Villas-Boas afterwards. “You have to recognise that this is his best goal-scoring season for Tottenham.”
The number of Bale’s goals – six in four, 19 this season – is quite something, but the nature of them is something else.
Bale’s first was a free-kick from which few other players would have shot and fewer would have scored. He was 40 yards from goal, in a central position, after Mouse Dembele was fouled. He whipped the ball over the wall and back down the other side, and it hurtled into the bottom corner beyond the dive of Remy Vercoutre. Somehow he has imitated the inimitable Cristiano Ronaldo.
That was dramatic enough. But when Bale stepped up again, in the third minute of added time, slightly closer to goal and slightly to the right, everyone was on edge. The remarkable thing is that Bale, like the world’s two best footballers, makes the astonishing the expected.
“Everyone knew what was going to happen,” said Villas-Boas afterwards. “We have seen him score three in two games from this situation, and there is that possibility. There is expectation, because you know that if the player strikes it well then most likely a goal is going to happen.”
And so it was. The ball flew off Bale’s left boot, up and over the wall, seemingly gathering speed, sloping down, under the bar and into the net. “Incredible,” said Villas-Boas. “Not only his all round game but this ability that he has to strike these free-kicks. The ball gains so much power when he strikes it, and it changes direction very easily.”
The reaction was so fevered that some on the Lyon bench took exception to the celebrations of Spurs assistant manager Steffen Freund. “They were annoyed with each other, but it is normal,” said Villas-Boas.
The rest of the game itself had been enjoyably competitive. Villas-Boas wants to win this competition but so do Lyon and they played with purpose. They should have had a penalty in the first half when Bafetimbi Gomis was tripped by Jan Vertonghen. After Bale scored they responded with a brilliant strike of their own from left-back Samuel Umtiti.
But goalkeeper Vercoutre is a good player and Bale is something else. Lyon could not stop him at The Lane, and they must hope that next Thursday is the day this ends.
Man of the match Bale.
Match rating 8/10.
Referee Proença (Lisbon).