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02 May 2014 00:00
Gareth Bale of Real Madrid against Bayern Muenchen in the Champions League semifinal. (AFP)
Gareth Bale touched the ball to his team-mate and he blasted into his stride. The run took him from the edge of his own penalty "area" ; the kind of sortie he had trademarked at Tottenham Hotspur and, before
that, at Southampton.
On Tuesday night, it came in the decorated colours of
Angel di Maria found Karim Benzema and Benzema moved it
back to Bale who, by now, having crossed halfway, had the pistons pumping. Bale
charged past Bayern’s last defender, Jerome Boateng, and, passing up the shot
for himself, he worked the ball square to Cristiano Ronaldo, who finished low
past Manuel Neuer.
As the ever-understated Ronaldo went into his pre-planned
routine to remind the global audience that it was his 15th Champions League
goal of the season from 10 ties – to eclipse Lionel Messi’s record – Bale might
have pinched himself. Real were 3-0 up on the night, in the backyard of the
defending champions, and set for a 4-0 triumph that would take them through, by
an aggregate scoreline of 5-0, to their first Champions League final in 12
Bale had won the Copa Del Rey two weeks previously – the
first major honour of his career – when his sensational individual goal had
made the difference against Barcelona. The La Liga title is not out of the
question for him, either. Real trail the leaders, Atletico Madrid, by six
points but they have a game in hand. Bale has 20 goals in all competitions and
he has found his groove over the second half of the season, when it matters the
most. He is revelling on Europe’s grandest stages. So Gareth, any regrets about
that transfer last summer?
Small and spindly
“I do think of the journey I have made,” Bale said, after
the slaying of Bayern, and the mind went back to him as a small and spindly
15-year-old who, it was feared, might lack the physique to make it in the game.
There was also the career-threatening ankle injury at 18, the year of his move
from Southampton to Tottenham, plus the thing about him being a jinx for the
London club, when he failed to taste victory in 24 Premier League appearances.
Harry Redknapp, the manager at the time, was open to selling him.
Bale, though, is not somebody who lingers too long on
what has gone, or on anything that is overly sentimental. The 24-year-old lives
for the “here and now”, as he said on more than one occasion at the Allianz
Arena late on Tuesday night, and the here and now is loaded with possibilities
Chief among them is La Decima, the capture of a 10th
European Cup, something that has obsessed Real with burgeoning intensity since
the Zinedine Zidane-inspired ninth triumph over Bayer Leverkusen in 2002.
Real have chewed through 10 managers and £905-million in
transfer fees in the quest for their holy grail and Bale, the world record
£86-million signing from Tottenham, now stands to help them to it. He could
succeed where many previous galacticos have failed.
“When I signed, I was told all about La Decima and what
it means to the club,” Bale said. “There is a lot of expectation at Real but
there is more expectation about that. We are happy to be in the final now,
happy to have the chance of actually winning it.”
Bale had said upon his presentation as a Real player last
September that he hoped “to be able to help the club to win La Decima”. He said
it in Spanish and it got the desired cheers from the fans in attendance. As
with each of his high-profile and expensive predecessors, he has been signed to
win the Champions League. The pressure is unforgiving. And yet Bale has
Thrive on the pressure
“Real Madrid is just the most massive club,” Bale said, a
trace of awe in his voice. “No matter who it is and where you are, everybody
wants to beat Real Madrid. The expectation here is absolutely huge but we all
thrive on the pressure. We certainly did against Bayern.
“We have performed unbelievably all season and now we
have one more game to go. Everyone who comes to Real Madrid wants to win the
Champions League and now we have a real chance to do it.”
Bale talked of the 4-0 dismantling of Bayern as being
“the perfect game” and, having found his rhythm, he appears perfectly suited to
manager Carlo Ancelotti’s style, which is defined by speed on the counterattack
and ruthless execution.
It was difficult for Bale at first, and not because of
the weight of his fee. He missed the whole of pre-season as his move from
Tottenham became protracted and then a little bit ugly, and he did not complete
90 minutes for Real until October 30 against Sevilla. That game was only his
third start for the club.
“Missing pre-season affected me massively,” Bale said. “I
didn’t realise how important a pre-season was until I came to Madrid. It took a
little while for me to get going, which I think everyone understood. But I have
been able to really kick on after Christmas, to get my fitness up and play
“I try not to think about the fee. I came to Madrid to
play football and I am enjoying that. If I think about that and nothing else,
then I know that I’ll play well.”
Ancelotti believes that Bale will be more consistent over
his second season at the club but, for the player, it is all about the moment,
the closing weeks of this season. “I’m sure that all of the family will want
tickets for the Champions League final,” Bale said, with a smile. He has begun
to fulfil his dreams. – © Guardian News & Media 2014
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