Gareth Bale delivers when it matters most for Real
LISBON -- "We are the most demanding club in the world but we will always be by your side," said Real Madrid president Florentino Perez to Gareth Bale as his 100 million-euro man was unveiled. In Lisbon, there were times when such demands seemed too much. The moment loomed when Real would be looking for excuses for not winning a 10th Champions League; Bale looked like leading them.
Once he had headed in the extra-time goal that put Real into a lead that Atletico were by then incapable of surpassing, Bale had all of his teammates by his side, with Cristiano Ronaldo leading the party by the corner flag. Perez, his face stern throughout the 90 minutes that preceded Sergio Ramos' equaliser, could later be found holding court in the mixed zone.
"I would have liked Ramos' goal a bit earlier," Perez told the phalanx of TV cameras, "so as to avoid a heart attack." His relief was converted into a delight no doubt augmented by the supplier of the champagne moment being the player who cost most of all.
Whichever way it is cut, Bale has delivered for Real Madrid in his first season. Aside from Ramos' saver, Real's 2013-14 campaign will be recalled for two goals, both supplied by Bale. The 110th minute header was the moment La Decima was decided. In scoring the winner in the Copa del Rey final, Bale's run beyond Barcelona's Marc Bartra took him via the Mestalla kitchens, but the finish beyond Jose Manuel Pinto was a snapshot of a player capable of achieving far beyond what he could at Tottenham Hotspur.
Scoring goals in cup finals is an indelible means by which a player carves himself into club history. Should Bale continue on the heavenly path of his debutant season, then price tags become irrelevant.
As Ronaldo should countenance, goals can plaster over blemishes. Neither of Perez's highest-value signings played well in Lisbon's final. Where Ronaldo was scratchy, clearly not below his usual fitness levels and incapable of delivering when it mattered most, Bale looked equally rattled by the occasion.
It seemed as if the final might swing on the first of three Bale misses. Diego Godin's first-half goal for Atletico immediately followed a Bale burst through the middle that Real assistant Paul Clement would afterwards suggest was the best chance of the whole match. As the entire stadium gawped in expectation, Bale, having opened out the angle for his left foot to slot home, missed the target, his eventual effort distracted by the last-ditch lunge of Miranda.
When Bale dragged further second-half chances wide in Real's desperate chase for an equaliser, the tag of being a waste of money loomed ever more darkly. Yet Bale's career trajectory has been built on determination. "I have learnt from past experiences to keep going, to forget about the chances I've missed and keep persevering and eventually one will come," he said in his Sky TV postmatch flash interview.
Such qualities have been true of Bale since he was Spurs' statistical Jonah. It took until September 2009, two years and four months into his Tottenham tenure, for him to be on the winning side for them. Just over a year later he was the talk of the continent as the player whose acceleration and power had twice destroyed Inter Milan.
Underneath a closed-off shyness that guards his inner thoughts from all but those close to him, Bale is a fierce and proud competitor, with attendant and burning ambition. The Bernabeu can be a graveyard for expensive signings, with Kaka the most shining example. On learning of Real's interest a year ago, Bale seized the opportunity without half-measures. His Spanish is still some way off being fully conversant, but he has not chosen the path of haughty isolation that killed Michael Owen's move to Madrid a decade ago.
There are times, and especially so in the Estadio da Luz, that his technical qualities look below that of his teammates, though none of them, not even Ronaldo, can replicate the pestilence of the Welshman at full flight. However, as with most Liga clubs, Atletico did not receive the blood-twisting devastation so habitual back in the Premier League. Bale's final performance reminded much of his Liga debut against Villarreal last September, where a goal masked hesitancy and a clear unfamiliarity with surroundings. Despite those two epochal goals, Real are still yet to locate the true best of Bale. To reach the true Messi/Ronaldo level he must aim for, his record of 23 goals in 43 matches needs to improve.
It will be required if Perez's endless horizons are to be reached. "This is the end of an obsession," said the president in the afterglow of La Decima before straight away signalling the next two. "We're now thinking about the 11th and then we'll focus on the 12th."
A glory-laden first season will have taught Bale that such weight of expectation is married to being a Real Madrid player. Having survived a cloud of doubt to prove the eventual match-winner, Lisbon suggested he can live with that.