Real Madrid 4 Atletico Madrid 1: Home-grown superstar Gareth Bale keeps on running and finds his appropriate reward
Bale netted in extra-time to give Real the lead and put them on course to win 'La Decima'
Estadio da Luz
Saturday 24 May 2014
For those of us old enough to remember the great forward line that led Real Madrid to their fifth consecutive European Cup in Glasgow in 1960 – Canario, Del Sol, Di Stefano, Puskas, Gento – the flamboyance of the club’s current attack has an added allure. Especially with a Briton being the man who sent them surging forward again and again and, ultimately, brought them an unrivalled 10th title.
Yes, Gareth Bale is now more British than Andy Murray. The Welshman was our invitation to European football’s top table and he duly delivered the most delicious of treats with his extra-time intervention. Marcello’s goal and Ronaldo’s penalty were merely the sealing of the deal.
Bale’s first season in Spain has vindicated those who saw his devastating displays for Tottenham against Internazionale in 2010-11 as the start of something very, very big. And his decisive goal last night was as big as it comes in the club game.
Bale is admired by Zinedine Zidane, once the brightest of all galacticos. Cristiano Ronaldo was recently and rightly voted the world’s best player, but he had neither the verve nor composure required to overcome Atletico’s much vaunted defence. His only telling contribution would be to earn and convert a penalty when the game was already won.
Bale, on the other hand, had already passed up a handful of chances before he found the net.
At Atletico, Diego Simeone has nurtured teamwork of a standard that might even have frustrated opponents of the rare quality of Alfredo di Stefano and Ferenc Puskas if such communal techniques had existed in 1960. It was an enormous test for Bale and one with which he often struggled.
When Real paid ¤100 million for the 24-year-old last summer – actually they claimed it was ¤91m or just under £80m, perhaps in order to maintain Ronaldo’s status as the most expensive player in the world – they had to let Mesut Özil go to Arsenal. Few question that judgement any more.
Not after the Copa del Rey final last month. Not after that goal against Barcelona in Valencia, when from the halfway line Bale sprinted irresistibly, surviving Marc Bartra’s crude barge, curving his run so he almost had to leave the stadium (“Of course I’m not paying to get back in – don’t you know who I am?”), veering inside and nutmegging Jose Pinto at the goalkeeper’s near post.
With such deeds Bale has earned the respect of Ronaldo. His lack of bombast – that was a joke; he’d never demand that you know who he was – has helped in this regard. Bale has fitted into Spain’s version of FC Hollywood with becoming modesty, not to mention 20 goals in 38 La Liga and Champions’ League appearances before last night.
Carlo Ancelotti set about breaking down the most resilient team structure in Europe with Bale wide on the right, Ronaldo on the left and Karim Benzema through the middle. If only the Frenchman had been more precise with an early flick when served by the rampaging Daniel Carvajal, Bale would have been clear and Atletico, perhaps, unlocked.
However, no one who has encountered Atletico this season, least of all Chelsea, their semi-final victims, would expect Real to have things easy.
Bale certainly laboured under no illusion that his job was purely creative. Diligently he tracked back with Filipe Luis, Atletico’s adventurous left-back; this was never going to be a night for end-of-season legs.
With Bale so occupied by Filipe Luis, and Ronaldo subdued in the face of Juanfran, it was left to Angel di Maria to lift the hopes of Real’s support. He drifted to the left, seeking to double the challenge to Juanfran and his colleagues, and one promising run was crudely halted by Raul Garcia at the expense of a yellow card.
Bale then skipped through the defence, causing Tiago to pull out of a tackle for fear of a penalty, before prodding wide. It was an expensive failure, for a couple of minutes later Iker Casillas made an infinitely worse error and Real were behind.
Bale was seldom at his sharpest until his decisive moment. In truth he didn’t look fully fit and dragged two very presentable chances wide of the target before Sergio Ramos made sure the pain had to drag on a while longer.
And yet it was Bale who had the energy to arrive at the far post at the exact right moment to head Real in front. It was emblematic of his indefatigable energy, and as Real surged away thereafter, those tired legs must have felt like skipping across the turf.
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