The goals that brought him to the attention of the world tended to be thumped in from distance or came at the end of those lung-busting runs from deep that would leave defenders gasping in his wake. On his Real Madrid debut tonight Gareth Bale forced one in from inside the six-yard box and then tripped over the goalkeeper. You can only imagine it must have felt just as good.
Until that goal, six minutes before half-time, it had been, to put it mildly, a pretty dispiriting night for Bale. He is not yet match-fit, that much is obvious, and when a player like him is not running at optimum capacity it tends to affect everything. On 18 minutes he clubbed a cross from the right over the goal and into touch and there was not a whole lot of sympathy offered from his team-mates.
Yet, what we have learned about Bale over the years is that despite the awkwardness off the pitch, there is a steel to this footballer that is impossible to overlook. When Daniel Carvajal crossed on 39 minutes, Ronaldo, the man who has now scored 203 goals for Real Madrid in 203 games was in the box but he was in nowhere near as good a position as Bale who was ahead of the defender Mario Gaspar and able to force the ball in.
He follows in the footsteps of David Beckham, who also managed a goal on his Madrid league debut against Real Betis. Laurie Cunningham scored twice on his league debut against Valencia. And although those two British players felt the pressure during their time at Madrid neither of them arrived as the most expensive footballer of all time with the attendant expectation that brings.
Bale’s goal did not keep Ronaldo off centre-stage for long. He scored to make it 2-1 within two minutes of Bale being substituted on the hour, an unfortunate turn of events for Villarreal who had been excellent taking the lead through Reuben Cani. Even after Ronaldo’s fortuitous goal, it ricocheted off him, the home side fought back to equalise through Bale’s former Spurs’ team-mate Giovani Dos Santos.
By the time he was summoned to the bench by Carlo Ancelotti to be replaced with Angel Di Maria, Bale looked exhausted. That usual power that allows him to run defenders down in the closing stages of a game has not yet returned to him following a virtually non-existent pre-season. As he tried to wrap his foot around a ball that was running out of play on the right side he rolled off the pitch and looked exhausted as he picked himself up.
Nevertheless, on his big night, Bale had come up with the goods. Diego Lopez, the Madrid goalkeeper was his side’s stand-out player but otherwise it was not a coherent performance from a team that had players worth a total of £324m on the pitch – a record for any starting XI.
The problem that now faces Madrid is that in a two-horse race they already find themselves two points behind Barcelona with four games played. The defending champions beat Seville tonight to make it four wins out of four. With the margins so fine, Ancelotti’s team cannot afford too many nights like this one.
For most of the game, Villarreal who, like Madrid, had also started the night having won all three previous league games, looked very strong especially the midfielders Manu Trigueros and Cani. Jonathan Pereira, partnering Dos Santos in attack, was a threat.
There were times when Lopez simply kept Madrid in the game, especially in the first half with a double save from the Mexican Javier Aquino. At the other end even Ronaldo looked off-key at times, missing with a header from a nicely-flighted Sergio Ramos cross that put him in the clear.
Villarreal scored first when Cani turned in a cut back from Pereira, who had got away from the often lamentable Pepe. Bale’s equaliser was created by Carvajal, whose good work was made possible by Luka Modric’s ball down the right. Ronaldo’s goal after the hour simply hit him and went in after the defender Mateo Mussachio had blocked his original shot.
For many teams that might have been enough, but Villarreal are a very impressive side who are only just back in the top-flight following their relegation in the 2011-2012 season and a year in the Segunda. The Mexican Dos Santos, who failed to make any impression at Spurs, but is typical of the sort of player they seek to recycle at Villarreal, scored after Lopez had once again saved from Cani. Bale has started well but for his team, the pressure is already on.
Villarreal (4-4-2): Asenjo; Mario, Musacchio, Dorado, Costa; Aquino, Bruno, Trigueros (Pina, 71), Cani; G Dos Santos (H Perez, 76), Pereira (Uche, 65).
Substitutes not used: J Sanchez (gk), Perbet, Gabriel, Iniguez.
Real Madrid (4-2-3-1): Diego López; Carvajal, Pepe, Sergio Ramos, Nacho; Modric, Illarramendi (Khedira, 54); Bale (Di Maria, 54), Isco, Ronaldo; Benzema (Morata, 72).
Substitutes not used: Casillas (gk), Casemiro, Jese, Llorente.
Referee: F T Vitienes
Booked: Villarreal Aquino Madrid Nacho, Morata
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